Soap business milks profit from goat herd

Making soap from milk

October 24, 2004|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One recent evening, Judy Bates ran out to the goat shed on her property in rural Whiteford. She had to tend her flock of eight Saanen dairy goats -- including Matilda, Laura and Fiona, whom she jokingly calls "monkeys with hooves" for their inquisitive nature. They provide the milk for her soap-making business, Sylvan Moon Soapworks.

The intelligent and affectionate creatures gathered around Bates as she murmured to them in a soothing voice.

"I wore this really long, flowing skirt down to the barn. I was on my way to a party," Bates said. "A lot of times my husband and I say, `Go let the goats out, and I'll meet you in the car.' So, I ran down there, and the babies, about a year old, must have grabbed my skirt and been mouthing it, like babies do. Later on, I'm at the party, and I looked down. And the edge of my skirt is all ragged and chewed. I have holes.

"My goat ate my skirt."

Bates has spent five years making soap with milk from a small herd of goats. And aside from the chewed skirts and an occasional hoof mark on the back of her shirt, things have gone smoothly.

`A herd queen'

"I'm a herd queen, I guess you could call it," she said.

Bates doesn't claim that her smooth skin comes from bathing in goat milk. But goat milk soap has been long-prized for its soothing properties for dry skin, and some say it can help heal eczema, psoriasis and other skin problems.

Bates makes the soap in 14-pound batches, working on her kitchen table.

At first, she gave the soap away to family and friends and sold it here and there. Then she got serious about it in 1999. She says her business is profitable now.

"I've been selling at the farmers' market for about three years now, and that's wonderful," she said. "I've really enjoyed that, because I enjoy that one-on-one with people, and it's kind of ageless," she said. "It's a nice way to buy things that you need."

She sells products from May to October at the farmers' market on Pennington Avenue in Havre de Grace on Saturday mornings. She also sells at Doodads Inc.

No tin cans

The bubbling wares include a choice of blackberry sage goat milk soap, lavender soap or sandalwood vanilla soap containing patchouli and vanilla. There's one called "Frosty Morning Soap," made with olive, palm, sunflower, lavender, rosemary and peppermint essential oils.

Her products also include a healing balm made with tea tree, lavender, peppermint, calendula and bees' wax.

Bates said goats are easily tended, but they are picky eaters. Gary Pfalzbot writes in his book, Brush Control Using Goats, that it was the use of goats to keep the weeds down on the farms that gave them the reputation for eating tin cans, but while they will take down all the vegetation they like and strip a field, they don't eat tin cans.

One of the lessons Bates and her husband, Mike, a computer artist, learned when they moved to this rural site, built a new house and bought two "lawnmower goats" was that goats don't like thistles.

"It was 10 acres of thistles when we moved here," Bates said. "It was a constant battle. And then we found that the only thing that beat the thistles was planting grass."

A new name

Bates said the name for her business changed from Thistle Hill Farm to Sylvan Moon Soapworks once the thistles on her property were replaced with grass.

One night, she noticed the white goats grazing on the hillside. They looked "all silvery and ethereal bathed in the moonlight," she said.

The farm's name is taken from the Saanens' herd name -- Sylvan Moon Saanens, which had a nice ring to it, she said. She wanted to tie the goats in more closely with the soap business because she was incorporating the goat's milk into the soap-making process.

She had been making soap for a few years before she got her goats. She keeps the goats and the soaps in separate business accounts, however.

But the whole property hasn't gone to the goats. Bates has an environmentalist bent and keeps some of the land on Sylvan Moon Farm in a natural state.

"Some years we let this [field] go and then other years, one of the local farmers will plant it in barley or something like that. But some years we like to leave it fallow to see the wildlife. We make a point to keep parts of the property wild for the wildlife."

Support network

When Bates found her herding instinct (she has just bought her first herd sire to breed her goats), she decided not to increase the number of animals quickly. As goats Matilda, Laura and Fiona jumped up to the roof of the shed to peer at Bates and listen to her voice, she said she had to learn how to keep goats through experience.

Because veterinary science isn't focused on goats, she has found a support system on the Internet, she said.

"We have a 911 thing going on. I can say, `My goat is choking, and I don't know what to do.' I can go on there and type it in and somebody will answer me. It's very, very supportive," Bates said.

Aside from the sire, she has all females or neutered males called wethers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.