Santa brought the owners of Little Seed Farm near Vine - James and Eileen Ray - one heck of a Christmas present this year.
Little Seed, one of Wilson County's newest family farms, sells organic goat's milk soap as its main commercial product - and earlier this month, the farm won a $25,000 Local Small Business Grant that will help the Rays expand their operation.
The grant came from the national, Brooklyn-based home furnishing chain west elm, which doesn't capitalize its brand name - but does have a store in Nashville where it retails locally made and designed products.
'Goats' hashtag gets clicks
west elm's "We Love LOCAL Small Business" contest helps grow small businesses from the ground up. The company asked customers to vote for their favorite small businesses, and those who favored Little Seed clicked "#vote4goats" - a catchy hashtag that James Ray credits with helping the farm win the contest.
"We're crazy goat people," Eileen adds with a grin.
James also says that getting into the Top 20 energized the couple into campaigning both online and in person by distributing flyers anytime they visited a farmers' market or craft fair with their sweet-scented soap.
When the clicks were counted, the 84-acre southern Wilson County farm on Whippoorwill Road, founded in March 2011, got the most votes and was awarded the money - which the Rays have already started using to expand.
2 new hires already
"We've hired two new local people to help us part-time," James said. Plus, the couple also plans to build additional storage space to allow them to expand their product line of skin care products "and to purchase the necessary equipment that we would otherwise not be able to afford," James continued.
"We wanted to add a line of liquid soaps. This will allow us to do that," he said, and Eileen added, "which we would love to do."
The couple was "humbled and excited" to win the contest, she said, because "this grant is going to be huge for our business. $25,000 is a big deal. We'll be able to bring in employment to our local community."
Mentoring help, too
Ongoing mentoring by in-house experts from west elm is also part of the prize - but the learning may work both ways, along with the publicity, which also is bringing positive national attention to Lebanon and Wilson County.
"Little Seed Farm is an incredible small business with a unique product line and an unwavering commitment to their community, organic farming and land stewardship," said west elm President Jim Brett. "We, along with the public voters, were so impressed with their products, their story and, in particular, their ethical business model."
Their goat's milk soaps, lotions and skin balms are all made from ingredients produced on the rolling pastures and cedar groves of Little Seed - plus organic olive and coconut oils that the Rays purchase from other suppliers.
The couple bought Little Seed Farm two and a half years ago, but they named it before they saw it - while still living in Manhattan, where James was working as a hedge fund manager.
'Back to the land'
"We were stuck in the city dreaming about having a farm," Eileen remembers. "We got the idea of all things coming from a little seed and decided that was what we would name our farm...
"Our dream was the natural idea of living sustainably," she explained. "We were burnt out living the big city rat race. We wanted to get back on the land and produce as much of what we needed as possible."
James says when they first moved to the farm, it had a comfortable house and some falling-down buildings - and all those cedar trees.
"We cut enough cedars from the farm and milled them into boards to build this small barn where we make soap," he says, standing in the fragrant building with walls and ceiling of cedar.
But the walls aren't all that smells great in the building - there also is the scent of herbal soaps, thousands of bars, carefully separated in rows on wire shelves in front of 24-hour fans so they can finish drying.
"We don't add hardeners, so they have to dry before we can sell them," Eileen explained.
30,000 bars 'only breaks even'
"We sold 30,000 bars of soap this year," Eileen says. And while that sounds like a lot of soap, it is only the break-even point for the farm.
To begin with, Eileen and James tried to run a traditional, diversified family farm, but they discovered they couldn't make a living and pay their mortgage, too. Then Eileen's grandmother developed a problem with dry itchy skin, and her doctor prescribed a steroid crème.
Her grandmother didn't want to use the crème, so Eileen started researching soaps which might help. She developed an herbal goat's milk soap and it worked.
To find a basic recipe, "I Googled it," she admitted with a grin.
The Rays started selling their new soap along with their meat, eggs and cheese. Soon it was outselling everything else.
Soap saves the day
Also, James pointed out, soap doesn't require the extensive federal licensing and inspection which selling food does.
"Food requires too much infrastructure to be legal," James said. So they converted to soap production.
Now they pasture-feed 25 to 30 goats, mostly milkers, and have the help of three herd dogs and one pet canine, as well as chickens, ducks and guineas. They also raise a vegetable garden and herbs for the soaps.
Some of the soap has no fragrance since some people prefer it that way. One of the fragrance-free soaps has activated charcoal added to it. The "hunk of coal" black bars look a little odd, but "they're great for skin problems," James said. "They can help with acne or other skin problems."
'Coal' for stockings
The activated-charcoal bars sold out this Christmas season, however, not only due to their skin-cleansing properties, but also to Eileen and James marketing them as the perfect way to put a hunk of "coal" in someone's stocking for Christmas.
The Rays also produce other natural organic skin care products from milk, oils and herbs. Almost all of it they offer for sale on the Internet, as well as supplying seven Kroger stores in the area with herbal soap to sell and about 75 retail outlets in 25 states. Plus, it will be featured on west elm's "best of local" online assortment early in 2015.
The soap is always wrapped in a white carton featuring one of Eileen's heart-grabbing pen-and-ink sketches of actual goats in the couple's herd - floppy ears and all.
James' family lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico now, but his grandfather ran a large farm in South Dakota, so he remembered what farm life could be like and wanted to raise his family on a farm.
Meeting in the middle
Eileen's family hails from Chittenden, Vermont. Here in Tennessee, "we're right in the middle," she said.
Last year both of their families came to visit for Thanksgiving, but this year Eileen said, "It was just too much with a toddler and the soap sales growing."
The newest addition to the Ray family is the couple's son George, who at almost 2 years old has just discovered how good the soap smells.
"He loves to pick up the bars and smell them," Eileen says with a smile.
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.