Necessity leads to one couple's new life.
Great things can grow from small seeds, with hard work, creativity and savvy business instincts. All that took Eileen and James Ray from good jobs in New York City to a now-thriving dairy goat farm in middle Tennessee. Observers might have thought it a foolhardy venture.
After all, up there in the city that never sleeps, Eileen worked what some would consider a dream job as a model turned fashion designer. James was in his sixth year as a business analyst for an investment bank and a private equity fund.
They wanted to raise their family in a more peaceful place, however. Food production appealed to them, particularly after they volunteered to work on a Community Supported Agriculture farm on Long Island. After deciding to make a move, they lived with friends for six months to save up money.
A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, James attended Rhodes College in Memphis, and still had some contacts in Tennessee. They headed south to check it out and wound up buying a fairly small run-down farm near Lebanon, Tennessee.
Rough start. They moved in March, 2012. James planned to work for his old employer remotely from their new home while Eileen figured out the farming part of things. Just six months later, his employer went out of business. Life changed, fast.
“It was terrifying at the time. We had no income. We had a mortgage. We had to make a profit off the farm. Our skill sets were in fashion design and the finance world. What could we do?” Eileen says.
By that time, they had some goats on the farm. Eileen dabbled with making cheese, and her grandmother suggested soaps. Could either of those work out financially in a short period of time?
“I grew up in Vermont around hand-made soap, and I hated it. This soap I was making though was soap I loved. People kept asking for more. We were proud of it. We thought that since we’re jobless, maybe we should try selling soap. I was skeptical about it because there were a lot of soap sellers out there. How could we get in that market?” she says.
Before Christmas that year, the Rays developed three goat’s milk soaps they thought unique enough to market. They took them to farmers’ markets and listened carefully to customer feedback.
They carved a niche among the new group of consumers who want virtually everything to be organic. Their product line from the start contained no artificial fragrances, dyes, parabens, or GMO’s. Many products use herbs picked right on the farm or in the area. Little Seed Farm’s marketing mantra became, “Good for your body, good for the earth.”
Questions to answer. “We had to figure out a lot of things,” James says. “We spent time understanding business models, so my finance background helped. Considering our costs, what would make sense for a business like ours? Would a $6 bar of soap make sense for us once we crunch the numbers? What kinds of new products would work?”
Eileen used her artistic skills to design classy-looking packages. Each package features a line drawing of a real goat on the farm.
“Nothing is jobbed out. We do everything ourselves. If you go in a Kroger store and see a wooden display of our products, I built that display rack from wood that came from here,” James says.
“Our branding sets us apart, largely thanks to Eileen’s designs. We want to create a brand around our farm. People love our story but they’ve got to get past the point of spending $6 on a bar of soap. It isn’t cheap, so we want our packaging to look as nice or nicer than anything on the market. We want everything we do to have a clean, unique feel.”
Just as importantly, they want happy goats. They adopted a grass-fed beef style of rotational grazing using fencing designed for grass-fed poultry. The goats move to fresh grass every other day.
“To our knowledge, no one else is doing rotational grazing of goats. Having dairy goats is a different ballgame than meat goats. They have higher nutritional needs. Rotational grazing keeps them healthier. We use no antibiotics or medication.”
The Rays handle their goats differently from many dairy goat farmers. Their goats get to keep their horns, for one thing. Baby goats run with the herd and are bottle fed with the mother’s milk until weaning. Lactation stops naturally. The goats stay on pasture all the time, except for milking.
“We have developed our systems around the goat’s natural life. The key is keeping them healthy. We’ve had almost zero illness,” James says.
“The whole herd is about 50 goats. We usually milk 12 to 20 at a time. There are some that are pets and will never be milk goats. And we have some old ladies that are retired. We won’t get rid of them.”
They educated themselves about animal handling techniques by reading.
“We read a lot of books by people like Temple Grandin, who is very good with dealing with animals, and Jim Gerrish, who has done a lot of work with rotational grazing designs,” James says.
“We learned that being quiet and having patience with them is the biggest help to working with goats. I can walk out to the pasture and lead them right back to the milking parlor. We try to find the best solution from a goat’s perspective. We use electric poultry fence netting. It isn’t hard for them to learn how to work with it. They know the rotation, that they’re being moved to fresh grass every couple of days. I try to stay out there with them a lot.”
On their relatively small 35 acres, water availability was a problem. After the frustration of dealing with 50-gallon barrels with spigots, the Rays got a grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for piping to make water available for the goats throughout their rotational pastures.
The grazing system helped solve problems in the pastures. When they moved here, pastures were infested with broomsedge. Using rotational grazing let better grasses effectively compete with it. They pushed back the broomsedge and now use what’s left of it as a windbreak to shelter the goats.
“Where we’re rotational grazing is just full of nutrients and organic matter now, so we have the good grass we’re looking for. We have some briars and blackberries out there, but the goats like them, so some of them can stay. We actually mow grazing rows so the goats can get at the briar patches. It’s good for them to have some diversity in their grazing. In the winter, we take them for walks through the woods and they like that a lot,” James says.
Eileen walks the farm looking for herbs and new ingredients for their products. She stays busy developing new products based on various natural scents. Bar soap remains their core product. They have 17 types of it, at last count. But they work to find new products all the time. Eileen experimented for two years to develop a natural deodorant due to James’ adverse reactions to ones they bought. Now their deodorant cream is a big seller.
“That’s how we tend to do things. We wonder what would happen if we tried something, and we test it on ourselves. Then we know for sure how it works. We had hand problems from milking in the winter. Our hands would bleed and crack. We created a hand balm and tweaked it until we got what we wanted. Now it’s a top five product. That’s how we’ve always done it,” Eileen says.
Not only do they draw from their own experiences, they pay attention to customers’ comments, too. “We get requests for things like shampoo and conditioner, so we pay attention to that. If it’s something we need and can’t find on the market, maybe we’ll see what we can develop,” she says.
The Rays’ life on the farm, though hectic, fulfills them beyond what they could have imagined when moving to Tennessee six years ago. Now they’re enjoying it with a 5-year-old son and a 2-1/2-year-old daughter.
In addition to being sold online on their own website as well as Target’s site, their products are available in about 60 Kroger stores in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. They partnered with Nashville’s Jackalope Brewing Company to make a beer soap and are working on a bourbon soap.
“Moving here was a great thing for us. It’s a very good life for a family,” James says.
“We provide jobs, too. Our products are made by hand by people who care,” Eileen says.