To be a pioneer takes guts. The work is hard and long and often lonely. Pioneers are fast learners and experts in endurance. It’s a life of trial and error.

The Hard Fifty Farm lies in rural Lansing, Kansas, on the Missouri River northwest of Kansas City. The homesteaders and self-identified “farm punks” who call the farm home went back to the land to raise a variety of crops as well as a band of “rescue animals,” including goats and sheep taken from abusive or neglectful environments.

Jessie Duke

Remarkably, though, the stock that flourishes best on the Hard Fifty are books and do-it-yourself style “zines.” Pioneers Press, headquartered there, is a combined publishing house and small press distributor. The publisher’s catalog focuses on issues in survival and sustainability on the farm and in the city, as well as health, gender and sexuality.

Since its launch in 2012, Pioneers Press has brought out titles that have made the bestseller lists of independent bookstores around the world, including Powell’s Books’ number one bestselling small press title for the last three consecutive years, The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfuckin’ Sad. In 2015, Entropy Magazine named Pioneers Press as one of the best small presses in the country.

“The work is something that I’m passionate about,” says Jessie Duke, Pioneers Press owner, who has worked in independent publishing for 15 years. At 21, she founded and acted as managing editor for Fahrenheit San Diego, a weekly arts and entertainment newspaper.

“Seeing how difficult it was [for nonconventional authors and artists] either to break into mainstream distribution channels or get picked up by the bigger houses — that made me want to help my friends,” Duke tells CCC’s Chris Kenneally. “Instead of taking a more normal career path and trying to work for one of the bigger houses, it made more sense for me to stay within my community and see what we could do outside of those channels.”

Jessie Duke is the owner of Pioneers Press, a publishing house and small-press distribution company based in northeast Kansas. Duke was the 2016 recipient of the Yale Publishing Course Innovative Leader Scholarship, and in 2013 received a Rocket Grant by the Charlotte Street Foundation and the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art, with funding provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Duke currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI where she is a letterpress printer’s apprentice at the University of Michigan’s Wolverine Press.

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