Having fond memories of living in the country as a little girl, does not necessarily mean I’d want to become a farmer. I also have to thank the authentic and wonderful small scale farmers I interacted with as a young adult, in my career as a natural foods merchandiser. These farmers, with their rugged handshakes, practical ways of thinking, and beautiful food products rekindled my nostalgia for a life connected to the natural world. A life full of hard work, satisfaction, innovation and intrinsic value. They reminded me of my childhood, except they were living the lifestyle I remembered, as a livelihood. When these local farmers and I would part ways after a business meeting, I’d watch them walking away, imagining what their farmer life must be like. I felt so drawn to that lifestyle, even though I didn’t really have a clue what it was like to be an actual farmer. I didn’t yet have any idea where my admiration for those farmers was going to lead me.
In 2003, when I was a 24 and had steady salary from my day job, I bought a little house bult in 1860 with a bit of land an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities. The property had 1.8 acres, it wasn’t quite a farm, but it had a garden plot and lots of space to play with, compared to a city yard. The price was right, and it was close enough to the city that I could commute to my day job. I wanted a piece of my childhood, I wanted to have a vegetable garden. I didn’t quite know my path yet, but dealing with organic farmers at my job made me yearn for their lifestyle, the nostalgia was drifting into my dreams at night. My garden plans began that first winter, and life was never the same. I wanted to grow my self-sufficiency skills. I wanted to homestead. And I wanted to give back a taste of that life to my mom, have a place to share that with her. I always felt that she’d been ripped away from her little piece of heaven back in South Dakota so that my dad could find work. And to really urge me on, was the fact that my Mom had been diagnosed with and battling breast cancer for the past 5 years, and so I knew time was of the essence.
The first spring, 2004, she was there helping me wash the windows, pick the rhubarb and help get my huge garden set up with raised beds and heavy mulch. I was in heaven. However, owning an extremely old house, and a property in general, on my own was a challenge – there was so much to take care off and pay attention to. I wasn’t prepared for all the expenses and I was living paycheck to paycheck. The house wasn’t what I was there for, I wanted to be outside on my own place in the country. All my dreams for that place involved making the outdoors more beautiful and productive. Every evening, I’d be cuddled in my chair with homesteading books and magazines all around me, researching and planning my next projects.
I felt the pocketbook cinching tighter, and realized the more of my food I could raise, the better. So I brought my first 2 goats home. I chose goats first because of my Mom. I knew how excited she’d be to come visit them with my two youngest sisters.The first two goats I bought cae from a wonderful goat-addict who introduced me to milking and goats in general. I was so nervous- they were so big- they were LIVESTOCK.
I was a vegan, but I wanted to try my hand at milking and cheese making as a self sufficiency skill. Veganism is all about boycotting animal products and factory farm situations that you don’t believe in. However, I figured if I raised my goats to my high standards of care, with respect and love, there was nothing wrong with using their milk. They make plenty for their babies and beyond, so they were simply sharing their milk in trade for their housing, feed and care. I began to see the full circle of farm life.
I loved milking the goats and being so close and connected to animals. Being a vegan though, I was freaked out about drinking milk, so instead, I made yogurt. The first taste of dairy I had after many years was my homemade yogurt infused with strawberry jam, and it was pure and creamy heaven. I chugged down a whole quart, with my homemade strawberry jam mixed throughout, in a sitting! I experimented with cheese making shortly thereafter, and remember proudly serving a homemade pizza one day when my family came out to visit. It was covered with my homegrown veggies and melty goat milk mozzarella.
With 2 goats in milk, I was getting over a gallon of milk each day. I tried my hand at making goat milk soap to use some of the bounty. It was a laborious process and the bars took over 3 weeks to cure, but when I gave out my first soap samples, people really liked them. I mean, really liked them, asking if they could order more. My soap was very gentle, had an awesome lather and really cleaned the skin without leaving a residue. My mom was my biggest soap fan!
At my day job as a natural foods merchandiser, things had gotten a bit tumultuous with some management changes and explosive sales growth, and I was growing tired of it. I was also feeling a bit guilty about commuting over 2 hours a day. After a year or so, I found work closer to home. My new job was similar work in natural foods retail, for less pay, but with much less stress. This was a major change for me, and an important one. Now I had the time and energy opened up for my first attempt at a farm business venture.
I started selling my handmade soap to the co-ops, but as soon as I dove in, I realized there were a number of problems with the idea of becoming a fulltime soapmaker. For one, I didn’t really like making the soap, it involved hours of sitting in one place and stirring. Second, everyone makes soap, and it was easy to see the market was pretty saturated. Thirdly, the quantity of bars I’d need to make AND sell per year to make a living was very discouraging, let alone if I kept selling them at wholesale prices.
None of those downsides stopped me from trying it anyhow. Goatmilk soap was my first immersion into the world of being a farm-based entrepreneur, and I loved it. I kept strict records of all the goat and supply expenses for my new business, and I did my best to sell as much soap as possible, even doing handwashing demos at the stores. Selling the soap at wholesale prices to the stores made my product not very profitable though.That first year I sold about $1,000 worth of soap, which is nothing to sneeze at, but that was what my expenses were for the year! That meant that I didn’t get paid one penny for my work. My enthusiasm was waning after seeing the numbers, but the entrepreneur spirit had been tapped. I just had to figure out a better way to do this thing.