Frank Sinatra was singing on an outdoor PA system while adults sipped Farm Girl Saison beer. A campfire crackled and dozens of aprons fluttered on a clothesline. Picnic tables were converted into open-air masterpieces.
A large group had gathered at April and Josh Choate’s Prior Lake home on a September Saturday evening in 2010 waiting for a superstar. Paparazzi-like cameras stood ready and waiting.
Diane VanHorn drove from Janesville, Wis. to meet this celebrity. Detroit Tiger’s relief pitcher Robbie Weinhardt’s mom, Diana, missed her son’s Chicago game to stay in town to meet her. 11-year-old Brynlee Anderson of Shakopee made her first quilt in honor of her visit.
A chauffeur-driven black sedan arrived with farm idol MaryJane Butters. Butters is known as FarmGirl Sister #1 and is the founder of the FarmGirl Sisterhood, the reason she is at the Choates’ and receiving all this admiration.
The Prior Lake get-together was a “round-up” of the FarmGirl Sisterhood River Valley chapter, or “henhouse.” April Choate is the “head hen.”
Josh Choate calls himself a “DH” or “Designated Husband” and enjoys April’s involvement with FarmGirl Sisterhood. “It’s fantastic my wife is doing this because I get to wear an apron with her in the kitchen,” he said.
To be sure, Josh epitomizes masculinity. A triathlon athlete, he competes in the Ironman race and claimed a top 15-percentile finish in the Twin Cities Marathon. It takes a certain kind of man to feel secure enough to wear both a kilt-designed apron and an Ironman logo apron. “I could put on my pink Speedo under my apron and really work it,” he said.
Married for 12 years, the couple have three children. When not lending a hand at home, Josh helps his father run twelve franchised McDonalds in the Twin Cities. He was also the night’s front-yard DJ.
Diane VanHorn, FarmGirl Sister #922, is head hen of the “FiddleHead Farm” chapter and drove five hours to meet Butters. VanHorn farms a double-city lot in Janesville, Wisc. “I have three large organic vegetable beds and an herb garden. I have apple and cherry trees and blueberries and raspberries. I grew all this stuff in the city.”
VanHorn, 49, said she joined FarmGirl Sisterhood to meet like-minded women who want to eat locally, organically and healthy. “My husband and I are trying to get more self-sufficient. I buy meat from local farms and I grow everything else that goes with it. I buy hardly anything anymore from the grocery store. I just spent the last two months canning everything. We have put up our harvest,” she said.
VanHorn likes the bartering feature of the FarmGirl Sisterhood. (Members can swap as well as earn “Cluck Bucks” to barter.) She was fond of the goat’s milk soap made by another Sisterhood member. VanHorn crafts hand-made crochet raffia hats. “So I bartered my hats for a years supply of her soap,” she said. She likes the “Secret Sisters” part of the FarmGirl program. “We send each other little surprises in the mail for two months, then reveal ourselves. It’s really fun.”
April Choate grew up on a farm in the middle of Kansas and joined FarmGirl Sisterhood to learn how to sustain a lifestyle of farming in the suburbs, she said.
April cultivates the square-foot gardening system invented by Mel Bartholomew. The Choate family also belong to a local CSA: community-supported agriculture. CSA’s are a community of individuals who pledge support to a farming operation where growers and consumers share the risks and benefits of food production.
“The Twin Cities is the largest hot spot for CSA’s in the country,” said April. “You are buying a risk, but it’s an income the farmers can count on, no matter what. You also learn how to cook from CSA’s.”
April would like to raise chickens on her Prior Lake property, but said city ordinance call chickens exotic birds. “I laugh because one mile away are cows and corn stalks,” she said.
Diana Weinhardt is a wildlife biologist who supervises the Minnesota Zoo’s Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit. Weinhardt likes the City FarmGirl’s “Here’s the Thing” column in Butters’ popular magazine MaryJane’s Farm.
Organic Life Style
MaryJane Butters, of Moscow, Idaho, has become a household name across the country to women entrepreneurs, speaking to the farm girl in all of us.
An entrepreneur in her own right, Butters is an author, farmer, and sells mail-order goods such as sheets and towels made from Indian organic cotton which are processed in facilities with water recycling, salt reclamation, and emissions reduction.
In the 1970s, Butters was one of the first female wilderness rangers in the U.S. and was a Forest Service ranger in Utah’s Uinta Mountains, later maintaining the most remote wilderness ranger station in the Lower 48.
Today, Butters and husband Nick Ogle run several businesses, including their organic farm in Idaho, and are devoted to sustainable agriculture.
Butters and her 30-something daughter, Megan Butters Rae, were in the Twin Cities as part of the Creative Connection Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where Butters was a keynote speaker and panel member.
Butters grew up in the Mormon religion in Utah, and yes, that is her real last name, she told me at the Hyatt. “We called each other sister and brother. It’s a way to show great concern and love for each other. We are strong on community.”
Butters said her Mormon upbringing included sharing with others. “My father had the neighborhood truck and he was very proud when neighbors came to him to borrow his truck. We had a great welfare system where we grew crops, and canned everything. Canned goods were given to others when they were in need.”
Although her background influenced a strong sense of community, Butters is quick to point out FarmGirl Sisterhood is not religious. “I established ground rules in my chat rooms not to talk about religion or politics,” she said. “We get 500 new posts every day on topics like ‘tits on cows are getting chapped’ or ‘how to make curlers out of rags.’ That’s why I like my chat rooms over Facebook. I like a little bit more meat [in discussions].”
She said she loves Minneapolis and St. Paul. “They are two of my favorite areas. You have Garrison Keillor here! I love Prairie Home Companion.”
When you become an official FarmGirl Sisterhood member, you receive a consecutive number when you sign-up and a badge with an aproned hen logo. Members are encouraged to begin working on merit badges.
The seven aspects in Butters’s farmgirl’s life are: Cleaning Up, Each Other, Farm Kitchen, Garden Gate, Make It Easy, Outpost, and Stitching Room. Their Merit Badge structure grew from those seven sections, she said, and you earn merit badges for things like crocheting, community service, going green, creating a compost, or installing a rain barrel. Each category has three different levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Expert. Everyone has to start from scratch; and no hens get their previous accomplishments “grandmothered in.”
At Butters’ “Henquarters,” they look over the submitted entry, and once it’s approved, “your entry information will be shouted from the rooftops (cooptops?) on our Farmgirl Connection Chatroom,” said her FarmGirl Sisterhood website.
Butters said she wasn’t sure the FarmGirl Sisterhood idea would work, but has been encouraged by 2,100 members. “We had a thousand new members in the last few months,” she said. “They love it.”
There are now 773 FarmGirl Sisterhood chapters in 48 states and seven countries. Butters has begun Farmerettes (farmgirls-in-training between the ages of 14 to 18 and are mentored by Sisterhood members) and Young Cultivators (girls and boys between the ages of 6 to 13). The homeschool community needs to partner with a mentor as well, she said.
New this year will be videos on step-by-step instructions on how to get your merit badge, according to Butters. (Currently, Butters has several videos with farming advice). If a member isn’t interested in merit badges, there are other projects that can be done, or just getting together with other FarmerGirls via the chatroom.
Her magazine, MaryJane’s Farm, touts “If you think aprons are fun, try chaps!” Butters said she discovered her bi-monthly magazine sold twice as many copies when she was featured on the cover.
The October/November issue highlights “Yoga Cowgirls” where “cowgirl yoginis push themselves to the edge of their comfort zone” and describes how yoga principals can be applied to horsemanship. Another article told how Butters and her granddaughter planted their entire potato crop in stock tanks: “…effortless, weed-free gardening that conserves water big-time.”
Farming and Stiletto Heels
Butters’ slogan is “Being a farmgirl isn’t where you live, but how you live.” Her magazine articles are written by city, rural, suburban, mountain, and ranch farmgirls.
In this era of unstable publishing, Butters says her magazine is in the black with 180,000 subscribers and 40,000 issues on the newsstands.
Rebekah Teal of Chicago writes the “City Farmgirl” column featured on the last page of the magazine. An attorney and former judge, she describes herself as a “true-blue farmgirl…in a pair of stilettos.”
The magazine authors also blog about their experiences with farming on Butters’s website, MaryJanesFarm.org.
Butters has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal, and her farm has been in the National Geographic magazine. But, she said, “the Daily Planet is the first one to interview me about the FarmGirl Sisterhood.” It’s also her first Apron Fashion Show YouTube video.
MaryJane Butters says “she has been aproned her entire life.” April Choates said every apron tells a story. After eating dinner together, the guests took their individual aprons from the clothesline and began to tell a narrative of each garment as the sun went down and the cool autumn breeze came in.
“This fall, my wife and I got to make applesauce together, and that was really fun,” Josh said, as he brought out an organic cake made with fresh ingredients from Emmanuel Farm in Montgomery, Minn. It was really hard to believe I was in the suburbs.
(Above) Aprons on the clothesline at the Prior Lake home of April and Josh Coates. “Every apron tells a story,” said April. (Photos by Barb Teed)
(Above) Guest of Honor MaryJane Butters. She is the founder of FarmGirl Sisterhood and was attending a “round-up” at the Coates’ home. She lives in Moscow, Idaho where she and her husband run an organic farm.
(Above) MaryJane Butters’s book on top of a basket of aprons.
(Above) April Choates, left, presents honorary River Valley FarmGirl Sisterhood aprons to MaryJane Butters and her daughter Megan Butters Rae.
(Above) Josh Coates models his Scottish Kilt apron. He said he enjoys spending time in the kitchen with wife April.
(Above) Josh Coates, a triathalon athlete, has an Ironman logo apron.
(Above) Brynlee Anderson, left, and Annika Choate sit by the campfire at the FarmGirl Sisterhood Round-up Saturday. Brynlee made her first quilt for meeting MaryJane Butters.
(Above) Future farmgirls, including a three-month old in hand-made bonnet, attended the FarmGirl Sisterhood round-up. The Sisterhood has begun Farmerettes and Young Cultivators for younger ages.
(Above) Diane VanHorn, middle, drove from Janesville, Wisc. for the FarmGirl Sisterhood round-up in Prior Lake. Pictured with Vanhorn are Megan Butters Rae, left, and MaryJane Butters.
(Above) Diana Weihardt, center, missed son Robbie’s, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, game in Chicago to attend the FarmGirl Sisterhood round-up. She is pictured with Megan Butters Rae, left, and MaryJane Butters.
(Above) Colorado resident and Sisterhood member CJ Armstrong was named the 2010 FarmGirl of the year and earned 68 merit badges. She wasn’t able to attend the Prior Lake round-up, so members had a life-like photo of her propped up on a tree.
(Above) Farmgirl Sisterhood founder MaryJane Butters poses during an apron fashion show while in Prior Lake. “I’ve been aproned my entire life,” she says.
(Above) Candy dots the picnic tables.
(Above) A campfire greeted guests arriving at the River Valley chapter of the FarmGirl Sisterhood round-up in Prior Lake. There are chapters in 48 states and seven countries.
(Above) An organic cake from Emmanuel Farm in Montgomery, Minn. was made from fresh ingredients all produced on the farm and given in honor of MaryJane Butters’ visit. (It was the best cake I have eaten).
(Above) Bonnie presented MaryJane Butters with her homemade quilt at the FarmGirl Sisterhood round-up.