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Got their goats
James and Eileen Ray admit they were dutifully warned. “Pretty much everyone told us not to go with goats when we researched farming,” James says, citing the creatures’ high susceptibility to diseases and their escape-artist tendencies. Thankfully, the Rays didn’t listen.
The couple began imagining life on the land nine years ago while working in New York City – James in finance and Eileen in fashion design. Moved by Michael Pollan’s watershed book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the couple questioned their impact on the environment and began seeking a sustainable lifestyle connected to the land.
Volunteering at small local farms, they got their work boots in the door and eventually settled on the idea of starting a cow dairy to make cheese. However, when a search for affordable pasture led them to 84 acres about 40 miles east of Nashville, they knew cattle wouldn’t take to the land’s brambles, briars, and rocky terrain but that goats would eat it right up. Plan B began and Little Seed Farm was born.
About two months after they acquired four milk goats, a visit from Eileen’s grandmother instigated a second change. “She had a patch of dry skin on her arm for which her doctor had prescribed a steroid cream,” Eileen says. “But she’d heard that goat’s-milk soap was healing, so we made a batch using coconut and olive oils, essential oils, and goat’s milk.” The soap’s creamy lather healed Grandma’s arm and impressed family and friends.
“It was one of those things where you make something and you’re not really sure if you love it because you’re just proud of it or if it is actually really good,” Eileen says. “It didn’t really occur to us that we had something special with the soap.” But when James’ company closed (he had planned to work remotely for two years), they needed to go to market with something and what they had was soap.
Today, the farm’s line includes 16 bar soaps and assorted skin-care products. James mostly relegates his earlier roles as chief soap maker and milker to the couple’s eight employees so he can better concentrate on the overall business. Eileen handles branding, marketing, and product development.
“There’s administrative and wholesale work, but then you’re also out in the pastures moving the goats or foraging for plants to use in production,” Eileen says. “So we’re bouncing around and wearing a lot of hats, which is something we both enjoy.”
They also treasure country-style family time with Cecilia, 3, and George, 6, whether it’s spent cuddling chickens, enjoying a bonfire, or taking over weekend chores.
“From a business perspective, it’s entirely different from what we set out to do,” James says. “But from a lifestyle, career perspective, it’s pretty much what we had envisioned.”
“Soap was never in the plan,” Eileen adds. “And my first encounter with goats felt like a mauling – they chewed half my zipper. But now I can’t imagine life without them.”
How to make goat soap
Using traditional soap-making techniques, Little Seed Farm produces 1,500 to 2,000 bars per week.
- All soaps begin with a base of olive and coconut oils in a vat. Essential oils and other ingredients (such as charcoal powder) are slowly blended in.
- In a separate container, frozen goat’s-milk cubes blend with lye, a caustic ingredient that melts the cubes and dissolves into the liquid. “This is like a 90°F. milk solution,” James says.
- Mixing the milk solution and oil base at high speed causes the lye and oil to react and the mixture transforms into a thick paste called trace. “It’s called trace because you can trace your name with it,” James says.
- Trace is poured into a 16-inch-tall mold, then swaddled with packing blankets for two days to raise the temperature to about 120°F. This process turns the paste into a clear gel that solidifies into a giant bar of soap as it cools.
- Using a wire cutter operated by an air compressor, the large block is cut much like a giant loaf of bread, then turned on its side and cut again to yield 312 soap bars. Set on racks, the bars dehydrate and firm up, a process that takes at least four weeks.