Modeling after Martha
Sunday, November 23, 2003
MOSCOW, Idaho -- Rural living is a little different on Mary Jane Butters' farm.
Hens lay eggs. Workers fill bags of dried soup. Editors prepare the next edition of her magazine. Television producers call.
Butters presides over the bustle, positioning herself to become the next Martha Stewart while the original maven of gracious living prepares for a January securities-fraud trial.
Clarkson Potter, a Random House branch that also publishes Stewart's books, will pay Butters $1.3 million for two books that highlight the rural skills and do-it-yourself philosophy she has developed on her organic farm.
The first book, "Mary Jane's Gathering Place," is scheduled to be published in spring 2005. The second is tentatively due out in 2006.
The book deal has started a stampede in all things Mary Jane. A newspaper column, which had been appearing in three free weeklies in the Northwest, is being shopped to nationwide syndicators. Television producers are calling about doing a show. Butters isn't sure she is interested, because of the travel and time required. She made it a condition of her book contract that she not have to do a book tour.
There are even discussions about a line of household products -- from peelers to purses -- under the Mary Jane brand.
Butters sees herself as a model for new economic vitality in rural areas, and a conduit between rural women who produce goods, and shoppers looking to buy those goods.
"I'm going to be an approachable Martha Stewart, a rural Martha Stewart, in my home," says Butters, an apple-cheeked blonde with a backpacker's sun-burnished skin. "We're going to resurrect those nearly extinct domestic skills so we are not always buying things produced by a child in Taiwan."
Her publisher is betting that many Americans are longing for a taste of the comforting skills of pioneer rural women: cooking, gardening, sewing. They see Butters as the nation's home economics teacher.
"It reminds us of simpler times, but acknowledges we live in the present day," Pam Krauss, editorial director at Clarkson Potter in New York, said. "The most important thing is she is a completely authentic voice. It's not a city dweller's idea of what it might be like to live on a farm in Idaho.
"We see a huge potential for Mary Jane the book and Mary Jane the brand," she said. "We see her as someone we can publish for years to come."
Krauss declined to compare Butters to Stewart. "We would rather not draw that comparison," Krauss said. "She is completely original."
The book deal grew out of Butters' self-published magazine, MaryJanesFarm, an eclectic mix of recipes involving organic foods, crafts, advice on better ways to perform household tasks, lifestyle advice and empowerment sagas from rural women. In its three issues, the magazine also has ordering information for Butters' 60 different kinds of dried organic foods, including falafel, hummus, chili and soup.
The 50-year-old Butters has no academic training as a writer but says that words just flow out of her on topics she loves.
Born in Ogden, Utah, she has operated her organic farm since 1986. And she can barely believe her recent good fortune. Just last winter she was struggling to pay bills while sales of her dried foods plummeted in the slumping economy as the United States prepared to invade Iraq.
She found herself borrowing money from her bookkeeper, her employees took pay cuts and even her banker came through with another loan, she says. So she put together a 40-page book proposal, and her agent shopped it around. A bidding war ensued, ending with the $1.3 million deal.
Butters was raised in a large Mormon family in Utah. The family grew, raised or hunted their own food, and made their own clothes and other essentials. Butters went to carpentry school before joining the U.S. Forest Service in 1976 and becoming the first female wilderness ranger in Utah's Uinta Wilderness Area. She eventually lived in a fire lookout tower.
Knowing she wanted to farm, she spent a decade searching for the right place, envisioning it at the end of a dirt road. Butters and her two young children were living in Moscow when she saw an advertisement for a five-acre spread a few miles outside the town of 20,000 that sounded perfect. The farm was owned by two bachelor brothers, and lacked amenities such as indoor plumbing. She paid $45,000 for the land on Paradise Ridge and moved in.
"I raised two kids without a toilet here," she boasts. "No TV and no indoor plumbing."
Both her children are grown, but remain involved in her business, which has expanded from farming to include a line of organic dried foods such as soups, pastas, beans and meals. To fuel growth, she organized a private stock offering in the early 1990s, raising $500,000 from 55 stockholders. She remains majority owner of her company.
Her farm was bordered on three sides by a much larger grain farm, owned by Nick Ogle. They have since married.
In her spare time, Butters has been involved in a host of environmental and social justice issues.
The book deal will help her pay off debt and help her build a new home to replace the original farmhouse, which burned down in 1996.
For now, she sleeps in a bed in her office in the winter. In the summer, she has created an outdoor living space under a grove of trees, complete with a bed, dresser, chairs and the other comforts of home.
Her farm produces 60 varieties of garlic, plus iris bulbs and cut flowers and vegetables. It is also the home of her Pay Dirt Farm School, in which city people pay to live in rustic cabins and work on her farm for a brief time.
Though their styles differ greatly, Butters admires what Stewart has accomplished for domestic goddesses everywhere. Stewart is facing charges that she obstructed justice and lied to investigators about her sale of ImClone Systems stock in 2001.
"She gave validity to what women love to do in their homes," she said. "I'm sorry she is being bashed."