Pioneers Press attempts a radical experiment in literature and living
On the day after Christmas in 2008, a dispute over drug debts resulted in a man named Matthew Astorga driving to the Leavenworth, Kansas, home of Ruben Rodriguez and shooting him in the stomach. Rodriguez died.
Police picked up Astorga after a short car chase. Astorga, who had previously served six years on second-degree murder charges in New Mexico, was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder in Rodriguez’s death and handed a life sentence with no parole opportunity for 50 years. In the Kansas criminal system, that’s called a “hard 50.”
Today, Astorga’s former residence — a modest rental on three acres of land off Kansas Highway 5 in Lansing — is home to Portland, Oregon, transplants Jessie Duke, Thaddeus Christian and Adam Gnade; two toddlers (the offspring of Duke and Christian); two sheep; three ducks; three dogs; five goats; seven barn cats; and a pig named Hank Williams. The property serves as a homestead and an animal-rescue operation.
It’s also the headquarters of Pioneers Press, a publishing house and small-press distributor that sells books and zines on topics such as anarchism, sustainable living and cross-country dumpster-diving. Duke, Christian and Gnade call it the Hard Fifty Farm.
“The place was supposedly under long-term surveillance by the DEA,” Duke said in July. It was Independence Day, and Duke, Gnade and Christian were sitting outside on the west edge of their property, sipping beers pulled from a picnic cooler. Flies buzzed around a halved watermelon from which a large knife protruded. Two friendly chickens — Plymouth Rock chickens, Duke was pretty sure — loitered nearby.
“It took awhile after moving in to convince the farmers and ranchers around here that we weren’t criminals,” Gnade said. “We also have a pact that if we find a stash of cash when we’re planting crops, we’ll put it back in the ground. We’ve all seen No Country for Old Men. We don’t want any trouble.”
Gnade occasionally wandered over to the garden and returned with handfuls of snap peas. The Hard Fifty Farm Zine Mobile, a traveling gallery of nearly 2,000 handmade publications built with help from the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art’s Rocket Grant program, sat parked in the dirt driveway. Beyond it was the state highway. Then it was all green fields, blue skies, white clouds and wide-open spaces: rural Kansas.
It is a surprising destination for three 30-something West Coast punks, writers with zero country-living experience. In Portland, Christian worked as a sound engineer at several music venues. Gnade was the music editor at The Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly paper. Duke worked for Microcosm Publishing, a countercultural zine distributor and publishing company.
They came to Kansas four years ago, ready to start Pioneers Press and live what they believed would be more sustainable, cruelty-free, self-reliant lives. Adjusting to the country grind has been a constant dance of improvisation, but they’ve seen success. Gnade’s book, The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad, was the top-selling small-press title at Portland’s Powell’s Books, the largest independent book retailer in the world, in 2013.
None of the three holds down a second job. Duke and Christian (as well as their children and animals) subsist entirely on the profits of Pioneers Press. Gnade, who is also a musician, lives off touring and sales of his books. Duke estimates that food they’ve grown on the farm now accounts for 90 percent of their diets.
“Book sales are highest from about October through January, which keeps us busy with Pioneers stuff,” Duke says. “That’s also when the farm is quiet, and there’s not a lot to do outside, so it works out. We eat the food we canned the previous summer and fall. Then, in the spring, the farm kind of wakes up, and we start tilling the fields and cleaning the barn and fixing what broke over the winter. And that’s when sales start to slow down. Book sales in the summer are usually terrible, and there’s almost no money coming in. But it’s OK because we’re busy on the farm, and we’ve got food growing in the yard. It’s kind of perfect.”
Even with bare-minimum expenses, though, they’re living right on the edge. Last winter, Duke and the kids went to stay with family for a month when propane prices shot up and they couldn’t afford to heat the house. And Duke faces a debt disagreement that could cause Pioneers Press to cease operations and Duke to file for bankruptcy.
There’s also the more macro matter of the righteous, healthy, off-grid way of life they seek slipping further away as the Monsantos, Cargills, Wal-Marts and Amazons of the world tighten their grips on rural America.
In this way, what Duke, Christian and Gnade are doing in Lansing is a layered experiment with all sorts of questions baked into it. How sustainable a business is independent book publishing this deep into the age of the Internet? How can success in that industry be defined outside the parameters of capitalism? How do you grow enough food to support a family year-round? Is it still possible in America to forge a life distanced from all the bullshit of modern society? Are even proud exiles like the Pioneers founders too dependent on what they abhor to allow the freedom they want?
“I believe there are certain people whose lives are arguments for the world they want to see,” says Frank Farmer, an English professor at the University of Kansas whose area of study includes outsider writing. “And I think the folks at Pioneers Press are living those arguments. They’re doing what all good outsider literature does: They provide an alternative vision of what democratic life can be like.”
Duke’s connection to Kansas is through her father, a military man who brought the family along when he was stationed for a year at Fort Leavenworth, when Duke was 10.
In her 20s, Duke met Gnade while they were both living in San Diego. Gnade worked as an editor for that city’s daily newspaper, and later as a staff writer for a wire service. Duke was writing freelance while working at a health clinic. In 2003, with backing from Gnade’s wire-service publisher, they founded an alternative weekly called Fahrenheit San Diego to challenge the existing weekly, San Diego Reader.
“The Reader was horrible,” Gnade says. “There was very little arts coverage. The bands they’d write about had all been irrelevant for 10 years. Everything in it was geared to people who had a bunch of money. Meanwhile, there was this amazing art scene that was getting no attention. We wanted to put together something that would really support that underground scene. Like, ‘Hey, there’s this cool punk show happening in the sewers. You should go.’ “
Fahrenheit managed to reach a circulation of about 30,000 for about 18 months but ultimately folded. “The publisher decided he wouldn’t pay for a sales staff,” Duke says. “It just wasn’t doable after a point.”
Bart Schaneman, a Fahrenheit contributor whose 2012 book, Trans-Siberian, is distributed through Pioneers Press, says, “It [Fahrenheit] was great while it lasted. They [Duke and Gnade] had a clear vision of what they wanted to do and, for the year or so it was around, they made that vision a reality. For that brief time, they unified the scene in San Diego.”
Duke and Gnade spent the next year as transient punks — “I think we crossed the country 13 times, signing short-term leases, sleeping on couches,” Gnade says — before ending up in Norfolk, Virginia, where Christian was stationed with the Navy, and Duke worked briefly for PETA. (Duke had met Christian in San Diego when she was 14.) Gnade was offered the music-editor position with the Mercury in Portland and headed back west. Duke and Christian soon joined him.
“For about three years, starting around 2005, we were totally absorbed with the culture in Portland — out every night, as engaged as you can get,” Gnade says.
Duke took an internship at Microcosm Publishing that led to a full-time position. Microcosm is not a huge operation by the standards of mainstream book publishing, but the Portland company is a trusted brand, with a distribution deal that gets its products inside Barnes & Noble and Urban Outfitters. That makes it a giant in an industry that consists mostly of kids leaving photocopied zines at punk shows. Duke managed a storefront location and worked closely with founder Joe Biel. “It was a really amazing education,” she says.
By 2009, though, Duke, Christian and Gnade (who had quit the Mercury to tour and work part time for Microcosm) were ready to leave town.
“I think of Portland as kind of like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio,” Duke says. “You move there, and everything you could possibly want is there, and you play and play and play until you turn into a donkey. It exists in this total bubble. I couldn’t take it seriously after a point.”
“I still can’t watch Portlandia,” Gnade says.
“Yeah, that show is to me what M*A*S*H must be like to Korea vets,” Christian says.
Duke’s father had moved back to Leavenworth County to retire, and Duke and Christian decided to stay with him and scout places to live in the area. It was not a new idea to the trio.
“I grew up in Southern California, so until I started touring, I’d never seen the Midwest,” Gnade says. “I’d never seen fireflies or farm fields. And I kind of fell in love with it. I started talking to Jessie’s dad about starting a farm. That was the plan for a while.”
Duke and Christian found the Hard Fifty Farm in late 2009, and Gnade joined them in Kansas shortly after that.
At the time, Microcosm was structured as a collective, and Duke and Gnade had permission to continue working for Microcosm remotely.
“It reached a point with Microcosm where order fulfillment was being done in Bloomington, Indiana; PR and editing was done here in Lansing; and then the storefront was in Portland,” Gnade says. “It was a total clusterfuck — communication was difficult, and eventually everybody started hating each other.”
Two summers ago, Biel and Duke entered into an agreement (signed without legal counsel) to split the company in two. Biel would keep the publishing side (Microcosm Publishing), and Duke would spin off the distribution side into a separate entity called Microcosm Distribution. What happened next is the subject of two lawsuits: one filed by Biel in Oregon, and a countersuit filed by Duke in Kansas.
Biel contends that as part of the contract, Duke agreed to assume half the existing debts of the original company, and that she has failed to pay those debts, which he alleges now amount to nearly $50,000. The two parties signed the agreement in June 2012, but the split was not final until August of that year. Biel says the debt accrued in July.
“We had a really slow month in sales and a heavy bill cycle come due,” Biel tells The Pitch. “We got stuck with the responsibilities of those liabilities.”
Duke’s attorney, Dan Curry, of Kansas City firm Randles Mata & Brown, says those debts were not disclosed to Duke, and the last document she saw before signing the agreement was an accounting statement indicating a surplus.
“They signed the contract, then Biel sends her a letter two months later saying there’s $14,000 in debt she’s responsible for,” Curry tells The Pitch. “Then another letter saying the number has gone up. Then another. And he has no documents to justify any of it. No traditional accounting documents were being kept. He’s just saying, ‘Pay me $48,000, and I’m not going to tell you why.’ “
Curry goes on: “Part of the issue is that it was a disorganized collective. It was a bunch of anarchists running a company. But would any rational person say, ‘I’ll take over this distro company that consists of a bunch of zines in cardboard boxes, and in exchange you give me an incredible amount of debt that’s never been disclosed to anybody before’? I don’t think so. My impression is, he [Biel] is just trying to get a default judgment. He filed in Oregon knowing they [Duke and Pioneers Press] have no money and no way to defend themselves in the suit. No small-time, radical publishing company is generating enough profit to sustain professional legal defense in a different state.”
An Oregon hearing to determine whether the case will be heard in Oregon or Kansas is set for this week.
“It’s been suggested that we set up a legal-defense fund so people can donate,” Duke says. “But it’s already been such a waste of time and money. It’s over a year now we’ve been dealing with this, and I can’t imagine it’ll be done in the next six months. I’d rather the company go down than have kids with already-limited funds spend their money on me paying my lawyer.”
Duke’s split with Microcosm included a clause granting her leeway to start her own publishing imprint, which she did: Pioneers Press. And so far, it’s doing well — other than the legal battle.
“That’s the really frustrating thing, is that we know we can make this work,” Christian says. “We had a great first year. We had a staff — even a full-time employee — and this really creative, productive work environment, where we felt like we were supporting a small community. It felt great.”
Gnade likens the Pioneers business model to that of pre-Internet touring bands. “You go on the road, table your stuff, meet people directly, stay at their houses, build relationships,” he says. “We have a Web presence, too. But us hitting the road and doing events at small vegan cafés is what keeps us going. And I think people want that, too. I think a lot of people are sick of everything existing on the Internet and want that real connection.”
Yet the Web has also been a great friend to Pioneers Press. In addition to selling e-books to a growing overseas audience that it would not otherwise be able to reach, a big reason that Pioneers Press can keep the lights on is that Gnade’s zine, The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad, went viral online — as viral, anyway, as a literary self-help zine can.
“I was dealing with some hard times, and I made a bunch of lists that were these kind of pep talks about getting through hard times,” Gnade says. “I ended up posting a few of them on the Internet. Then we did a zine of them. Then, about a year ago, some girl did a really positive Tumblr post about it that got reblogged and reblogged and reblogged, to the point where there would be an order coming in for the zine every three minutes. It was like that for weeks and weeks. And it’s still kind of paying the rent out here.”
Duke rushed out a better, printed version of Sad, then packaged it into a small, 60-page book to keep up with demand. Since the initial spike, there has been steady press on Sad, sustaining the momentum. It’s now available in bookstores all over the world.
“I feel like it is kind of spearheading a movement showing that zines can go from these handmade pamphlets to more formally produced, perfect-bound publications,” says Julia Arredondo, whose Guide to Being Alone (Vice Versa Press) is one of the Pioneers Press distributing arm’s best-selling zines.
It’s also of a piece with the other nonfiction lit that Pioneers Press has begun publishing. There is, for instance, Matt Gauck’s Next Stop Adventure, a pocket-sized book about touring the country by bike. And there’s Dear Shane: A Mental Health Resource About Staying Alive, by Craig Kelly. Pioneers also distributes publications made by other outfits, with titles such as The Urban Gardener; Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal; and The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design.
“Self-reliance and self-empowerment, done with a DIY ethic,” is how Marc Saviano, a Kansas City artist and zine maker who has befriended Duke and company, describes the Pioneers aesthetic. “They’re interested in stuff that looks at creating your own communities and getting away from depending on the system.”
“I think of what we’re doing as being about answers,” Gnade says. “After 2001, or 2008, it’s harder to survive in America anymore. So how do you find a way to survive that’s easier, quieter, better for the land? There’s a lot of literature out there that’s inspiring, that’s about finding a better life. We’re more interested in real-world solutions about how to do that — action over theory.”
“There’s publishers our size or a little bigger — like AK Press or PM Press — that are really good at presenting the politics and theory of nonmainstream living,” Duke says. “The gap we’re trying to fill with Pioneers Press is presenting what that looks like day to day. And it’s important to me that we’re actually living that lifestyle, that we’re trying stuff out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and showing it to readers, warts and all.”
The Hard Fifty Farm was without an Internet connection until recently, so there were no how-to YouTube videos to guide the three 21st-century settlers. Much of what they’ve constructed — fences, gates, chicken coops, garden beds — has been from materials they found abandoned on the property.
“Obviously, we’re not working with a big Home Depot credit card out here,” Gnade says. “We use a lot of nonideal building materials. I never fixed or built anything in my life before coming here. But you just take a day, fully commit yourself to some project, screw it up, cut your hands a lot, and then slowly it starts to make sense.”
Farming has been a whole other set of lessons. Duke, for one, had little interest in growing her own food before moving to Lansing.
“When we started, we knew basically what everybody else knows about gardening: You dig a hole, put the seed in, pour some water on it, and hope for the best,” she says. “We got lucky the first year, and the garden produced some food. The next year, we planted more. This year, we planted a bunch of smaller batches of crops to see what worked and what didn’t. Next year, we’re going to do a whole field of quinoa. And throughout the process, it’s a lot of me learning about soil management and pest control, saying, ‘What is this bug?’ and flipping through books to figure it out.”
Christian, who until earlier this year worked for Mother Earth News, the national environmental magazine based in Topeka, has been perhaps the most vigorous advocate of the group’s back-to-the-land commitment. “Once you see your kid walk outside to the garden and eat a fresh tomato off the vine, it’s hard to go back to a different kind of life,” he says.
A kid walking in the Hard Fifty garden today would see chia, dill, basil, six types of tomatoes, 10 types of peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, zucchini, snap peas, pinto beans, quinoa, strawberries, mint, sage, corn, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, broccoli and spinach. There’s also a pear tree.
Having taken herself and her partners from neophyte homesteaders to semi-confident food growers, Duke hopes to set up community skill-share events for people to gather and learn agriculture techniques from one another. It’s part of her vision for the Normandy Farmstead Organization, a nonprofit she’s putting together.
She intends for Normandy to have an online magazine (tentatively set to launch this fall), a quarterly print journal, an animal rescue, a homesteading library, internship programs and those skill-sharing workshops. All would revolve around promoting the self-sufficient, DIY existence that the three Pioneers founders have undertaken through farming, art and literature.
“We’ve gotten to know some of the farmers in the area, and they’ve been so helpful,” Duke says. “We know a farmer across town who raises pigs for meat, and his wife gives horseback lessons on the side. They’re making do with what they’ve got to work with. More and more, I look at what we’re doing that way: What value do we have, what can we do, and how do we share it? That’s kind of the idea with the Normandy project.”
There might not be room to hold the Normandy events at the Hard Fifty, which they may soon outgrow. The first year, the farm’s garden patch was 6 feet by 6 feet. Then it was half an acre. This year, it’s a full acre. And there are the additional animals they have rescued. Duke says they can’t afford to buy property while the lawsuits are pending, so they’ve been scouting northeast Kansas for farm rentals. No luck so far.
“It’s tough,” Duke says. “We’d need several acres, three bedrooms. We’ve got chickens, which is sometimes an issue. The landlord would have to be OK with our pit bulls. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, can we run a radical publishing company out of the basement?’ “