MaryJanesFarm: Putting a Face to Food
from Renewing the Countryside (www.renewingthecountryside.org)
Tucked away amongst the contoured countryside about eight miles from Moscow, Idaho, MaryJanesFarm feeds the swelling national appetite for a sense of place and convenient wholesome foods with its 60 different kinds of organic specialty food products sold mostly by mail order, a website, and national magazine. The farm's magazine and products can also be found in a diverse range of stores, from Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart to REI and Whole Foods Market, respectively.
Co-owned by MaryJane Butters and husband, Nick Ogle, and with the full-time staff of eighteen others, MaryJanesFarm uses about 80 acres to produce some of the organic ingredients found in their instant, just-add-water foods shipped throughout the country. Their magazine, MaryJanesFarm helps advertise MaryJane's food products while putting a face to the farmers behind the organic ingredients, featuring practical homemaking projects, brilliant photography and captivating essays.
MaryJane, who started out as one of the first women forest rangers for the National Forest Service right out of high school in the 1970s, moved to the present 5 acre homestead in 1985 after she had two kids. The farm became the foundation for her value-added processing, manufacturing, and mail order business, Paradise Farm Organics, later renamed MaryJanesFarm. She met and later married a neighboring 3rd generation farmer, Nick Ogle, and they raised their two kids each on the farm. Today, about 4 acres are used for growing fruits, vegetables and herbs, 22 acres for mustard seed that is then pressed to produce the biodiesel that powers MaryJane's car, 26 acres in pasture, and 26 acres in crop reserve program (CRP) set-aside land.
"I'm not doing anything differently than I did when I first opened Paradise Farm Organics in 1985," comments MaryJane. "My big difference in running the farm was to put a face to food by renaming my farm and products MaryJanesFarm. I branded myself. Suddenly, my products took on the passion in my heart for the things I believed in." Things like foods free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, land stewardship, preserving the economic, social and cultural farming traditions, and essaying to the times when farm meals and nighttime campfire s'mores were regular occurrences. "It also allowed us to be unique, since nobody can ever be you, even if they might come out with a competing line of organic camping food. By branding yourself, you can be your product as a farmer and create loyalty and trust."
"I get permission to do certain things from my customers," MaryJane adds about her customer relationship. "I share who I am as a farmer and they advise me on my future plans, like when I'm faced with the proposition of adding a new product like chillovers to make gelatin-free desserts. The same $2,500 mold made overseas would cost $85,000 here in the United States. I can explain the struggles we have with our operations and my customers share in the decision-making process."
MaryJane is also willing to try new things and experiment , both in the kitchen and on the farm. When she needed capital to expand her business in 1993, she did her own public stock offering and raised $500,000. Instead of paying cash dividends or interest, initial dividends came in the form of the products she made from the investments. Shareholders are often found farming alongside MaryJane, or profiled in her magazine.
MaryJanesFarm includes two greenhouses (80-foot by 40-foot and 20-foot by 30-foot) to grow winter crops, several buildings used for mixing and packaging the food products, a test kitchen, chicken coop, and numerous outbuildings. For items not grown on premise, MaryJanesFarm contracts with small, family-size, organic farms around the country or purchase from a food broker. Pastas and cheeses are dehydrated locally, while other items are cleaned and instantized at licensed processing facilities. None of her products are freeze-dried.
Valued-added, organic prepared foods -- especially MaryJanes Backcountry line of dehydrated camping food -- originally catapulted MaryJane's farm products onto the shelves of national stores, albeit camping and outdoor recreation outfitters like REI. With flavorful Wild Forest Mushroom Couscous, Hot 'n Creamy Cereal and Red Pesto Pasta, MaryJanesFarm's products have swept taste tests and pleased the palates of hikers and homemakers alike.
About 60 percent of MaryJanesFarm's annual sales, now topping $700,000, come from the MaryJanesFarm's camping food products. About 43 percent of her sales result from her mail order catalog (now MaryJanesFarm magazine) and website, and 5 percent from her farm bed & breakfast. Printing of the quarterly, advertising-free magazine-catalog has exceeded 50,000 copies.
More recently, MaryJanesFarm's marketing efforts and product lines have reached out to families and business execs, searching for quick, tasty and healthy meals. Besides the Backcountry cuisine line, MaryJanesFarm sells Travel, Farmhouse, Campus and Office cuisine lines designed to meet the needs of a particular clientele. MaryJanesFarm also offers four variations in sizes and has expanded into offering related cooking and farm accessories.
MaryJanesFarm's Office Cuisine, sold through Whole Foods Market, have allowed MaryJanesFarm to diversify distribution channels and entice new customers who might have never cooked their own meal over a backwoods campfire or don't live anywhere near a farm. "We had reached a sales plateau with our Backcountry cuisine by the late 1990s," explains MaryJane. "Then September 11, 2001 happened. We went from $35,000 in sales in September of our premium organic camping food products to only $1,800 in the same month, one year later."
"Diversification is the way all farms used to be forty years ago," says MaryJane. "It makes farming doable." In 2004, MaryJanesFarm added five canvass tents to house bed & breakfast guests and help diversify its operations into agritourism. Adds MaryJane with a smile: "Our culture pays more for entertainment than for our food. So agritourism is a great cash crop. My customers are interested in rootedness, in being connected to the land, and that's what I'm selling." Since 1995, MaryJanesFarm has offered a week-long intensive educational program, Pay Dirt Farm School, which is operated as a non-profit organization and attracts prospective farmers, homesteaders and others endeavoring to become a bit more self-reliant.
But it's MaryJane's book, MaryJane's Idea Book, Cookbook and Lifebook for the Farmgirl in All of Us, that MaryJane sees as helping achieve the broader educational purpose and spread the message behind her award-winning food concoctions. "My book puts it all together and explains how to raise money, become bookkeepers, and talk to bankers," explains MaryJane. Adding with a laugh, "Farm boys are welcome, too."
So what's MaryJane's dream business? Perched in a second floor loft room in her barn, she replies: "Selling everything locally, without ever making a shipment on a UPS truck. Everyone would grow their own foods or buy from local farmers or neighbors who grow their own. We'd be back to local trading and bartering."
With her magazine and new book in people's hands, her dream might be just the thing to spark a local food revolution, if not also restoring greater food security in a day and age when too many people rely on too few farmers for our daily bread.