As James Ray outfits himself in protective gear (not limited to an apron, gloves and a helmet), he artfully tells us the ins and outs of soap making. The process of making soap begins by mixing the base oils — olive and coconut — with natural ingredients and essential oils for different varieties. While these ingredients are mixing, James begins combining the milk (in frozen cubes) and lye to begin the saponification process — the chemical reaction of the ingredients that, in this case, brings the mixture to about 90 degrees. The two mixes are combined, allowing them to settle together before being poured into the mold. Within about an hour’s time, 300 bars of soap have been crafted with the utmost precision and commitment to the process. Then, the soap rests before being cut into bars and drying on the shelves for roughly a month. And this is a process that happens again and again and again, every day, in fact, at Little Seed Farm.
A culmination of events led to the creation of Little Seed Farm, a sustainable farm best known for their goat’s milk soap. Eileen and James Ray crossed paths in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and a mutual appreciation for sustainability led them to abandon their big city lifestyle (and careers in fashion and finance, respectively) for farm life in Tennessee. “We decided that, before having kids, we wanted to do something different with our lives; we wanted a more sustainable lifestyle,” James shares. Their passion for sustainability and lack of understanding what exactly they were getting themselves into brought them to 84 acres in Middle Tennessee. Four years later, in addition to those 84 acres, they have two beautiful children, six dogs, 40 goats (15 in milk), ducks, chickens and a growing business.
As James squirts fresh goat’s milk into his coffee, Eileen watches chicks hatch with 3-year-old George and 6-month-old Cecilia. You wouldn’t believe that prior to moving down South, neither James nor Eileen had farming experience. “We looked into starting a bed and breakfast but at the end of the day, what inspired us was the farming component. We didn’t know if it was realistic as a way of life but we just went for it,” James shares. The initial dream for the farm was to create a small-scale dairy business with a focus on the production of goat cheese. Unbeknownst to the Rays — and to us — this meant a high cost of entry into a market that has limited infrastructure. Tennessee has a focus on big agriculture, which poses issues in monitoring, production and distribution for small-scale dairy farms.
“Soap making took on a life of its own and made more sense from a business perspective than cheese did. With soap, we could start small and reinvest as we grew,” James shares. And grow they have. Bridgette was their first goat, and lavender and oat their first soap varieties. Eileen had begun making soap for her grandmother and friends, and then family caught wind of it. Soon enough, everyone wanted a bar for themselves. The operation made the much-needed move from their kitchen into a dedicated soap studio on the property. Four employees and 14 goats have joined the team and the product list has grown to 15 varieties of bar soap, essential body oils, hand balms, body scrubs, beard oils, lip salves, liquid soap and baby booty balm. “We have intentionally gone at a slow pace but, naturally, have grown quickly,” says James. “We are just trying to make a good product and keep up with the business. We want to meet our standards in terms of sustainability but also meet our consumer expectations.”
Little Seed Farm’s alchemy is creating a consistently good product. And the proof is in the pudding — er, the soap. Their first client account was Nashville store Oldmadegood (OMG), which discovered the soaps on Etsy. While Tennessee continues to be their primary market, shoppers in almost 30 states and four countries can find Little Seed Farm goods at local retailers. Bar soap, liquid soap, face and lip products, body oils and men’s products grace the shelves of almost 200 retail locations. All of the products are well loved, but the bar soap continues to reign supreme. The grapefruit lemon is the newest; the activated charcoal is the most popular; and the beer is the most interesting.
Yes, we did say beer soap. Little Seed Farm partnered with Nashville’s Jackalope Brewing to craft three soaps with their most popular brews (Thunder Ann, Bearwalker and Rompo). Paired with organic essential oils, the beer provides an attractive aroma that characterizes each of the brews. And, according to James, the beer soap makes for a great shampoo. This was the farm’s first collaboration and they continue to expand their partnerships, which now include Bulls Bay Saltworks out of South Carolina for a sea salt soap and Nashville’s Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery for a bourbon bar. “Collaborations are a good way to go for us to get to know other local business owners,” Eileen says. “We are isolated out here, so it is nice to interact with other small businesses,” James echoes.
Most soaps are made with water and palm kernel oil (a large factor in deforestation). Little Seed Farm steers clear of these ingredients and only includes milk, lye and organic olive, coconut and essential oils imported from all of the world — such as vanilla from India or vetiver from Indonesia. The aromas in the soap studio are present but not assaulting. The soap has an earthy base, so when combined with certain oils, it doesn’t always come out as planned. Eileen and James have tested and approved all of their varieties. Working with natural essential oils can pose a challenge, as these change at different temperatures (whereas fragrance oils keep their scent profile). For example, the vanilla smells more like a sugar cookie than vanilla you find in other products.
Along with the South’s wider appreciation for handmade goods and support of small and local businesses has come the opportunity for expansion, which will increase Little Seed Farm’s production from 1,500 – 2,000 bars of soap each week to 3,000 – 6,000 bars of soap each week. The bar soap making has fallen under James’ duties, along with managing the wholesale accounts and online sales, while Eileen focuses on website design and branding. The company they created also boasts employees who are dedicated soap lovers. “For the first four years, we have grown gradually. Now, we have systems in place to grow a bit more,” James says. One of the systems James is referencing is the in-house recipe book. Now that the recipes are out of his head and on paper, he can begin to train others in soap making. The company will continue to grow in terms of production and staff but will remain fortified by the Ray’s clear vision of building a sustainable lifestyle, a compulsion that has dictated their life down South.
As the soap-making process keeps going and the goats keep grazing, we reluctantly leave the farm in our rearview mirror and consider abandoning life as we know it. But for now, we will let James and Eileen lead the charge and live the dream of soap making in Middle Tennessee.
The beautiful photos from today’s article were taken by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.
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