Whether you want to incorporate more clean skin products into your life or just to live out your cottagecore fantasy, these homemade soap businesses from all around Virginia are here to add to your collection. And the best part: the soap comes from goats.
While you’re deep asleep in your bed at five in the morning, Crystal Neilson-Hall of Freckled Farm Soap Company is out feeding her herds of goats.
This is just the start of a long day for many goat farmers in Virginia. From tending their farms to formulating recipes, local goat farmers spend much of their time surrounded by the redolence of livestock, lavender, and cedarwood.
At Freckled Farm Soap Company in Goochland, Neilson-Hall and her husband may work until 10 or 11 at night. While her life constantly revolves around tending to her goats and other farm animals, Neilson-Hall says it doesn’t feel like work.
“I feel like I’m living my vacation, because I love what I do,” she said. The company is named after her two children, Breckin and Bryce; both names are Celtic words for “freckled.” She had always wanted goats, and the soap business grew out of her desire to raise them.
As environmentalists, Neilson-Hall and her husband stand behind the nutrition and environmental benefits of using goat’s milk. After doing their research, they decided to start creating products.
“So often, people are using products that put horrible chemicals into our water system,” Neilson-Hall said. “That messes up our reservoirs, creating algae, and killing and suffocating wildlife. So we’re very careful to pay attention to what we are creating.”
Their bar soaps consist of goat’s milk and essential oils, which they source from suppliers with Certified Sustainable Certificates, indicating that they utilize sustainable practices.
In addition to their goats and typical farm animals, Freckled Farm is bestowed with a guard llama, Afton, who is famous among many customers. Afton is reaching old age, but with the help of a guard dog, he is still committed to protecting the farm and animals.
“His job has always been to protect the herd,” Neilson-Hall said, “and he takes it pretty seriously.”
Naked Goat Soap, located right outside of Richmond in Hanover, was founded by Heather Long in 2014. The “Naked” in Naked Goat Soap refers to the lack of dyes and chemicals in her products, Long said.
Burnt out by her real estate career, Long decided to venture into the soap-making business after moving to her husband’s family farm and acquiring goats. From there, she delved into research on goat’s milk benefits and soap-making, and started experimenting with batches. She began selling to friends and family, and the business grew organically.
“It was just a flow, a natural process as this came together,” Long said. “It afforded me the opportunity to focus on my business and leave my previous career.”
GOAT Soap, based in Roanoke, was created by Bryce and Emily Gannon after a trip to their local farmer’s market nearly a decade ago. They purchased goat’s milk soaps from a vendor, and after one use, they never went back to any other soaps.
The two were so in love with the soaps that they soon talked with the vendor about expanding his brand nationwide. After learning the soap-making process directly from him — and with many trials and errors — GOAT Soap was born.
“It all started from a desire,” Emily said, “to take such a good product with goat’s milk in it to more than just the downtown Roanoke farmer’s market.”
The brand’s name is a pun, as GOAT is an acronym for The Greatest of All Time. The Gannons are confident about goat’s milk products when they say “it’s the greatest soap of all time.”
Homemade goat’s milk soap lacks artificial ingredients and chemicals that commercial mass-produced soaps often contain. The rich nutrients in goat’s milk, such as alpha hydroxy acid, combined with essential oils’ soothing properties, make the product a non-toxic and natural alternative that many consumers seek.
Both Neilson-Hall and Emily Gannon pointed out that mass-produced commercial soaps are not legally allowed to call their products “soaps,” but rather use terms like “beauty bars” or “moisturizing bars.”
“Many of them are qualified as detergents, not actually soaps,” Emily said. “In order to be a soap, you have to move through the saponification process.”
Saponification, in simpler terms, is a process in which triglycerides such as oils react with lye to produce soap.
“Once you go handmade, you can’t go back,” Neilson-Hall said. “They’re using high-quality ingredients, high-quality oils that are really nourishing.”
Owning a small goat’s milk soap business comes with multiple perks. Besides being surrounded by goats all day long, there is full creativity and control in designing and naming the products.
Many of Naked Goat Soap’s product names are influenced by their scent profiles and color. Take “Calm” as an example: a cool, gray bar soap. It’s named after the lavender essential oil’s ability to calm, and for Long, gray is a calming color.
“I think people are connected to a scent,” Long said. “Maybe it reminds them of their childhood or it reminds them of a certain place.”
Neilson-Hall and her husband have a similar approach to naming their soaps. While they do take into consideration the ingredients and scent profile, extensive research goes into the naming process as well.
They were conflicted on what to name a bar soap containing frankincense and myrrh. Neilson-Hall said she wanted to avoid simply naming it “Frankincense and Myrrh,” because it can have religious connotations. After learning these essential oils originated in the Northeast region of Africa, and that Cleopatra used them in her makeup to prevent conjunctivitis, she decided on the name “Cleopatra.”
“We felt it would be a good homage,” Neilson-Hall said. “This woman, who is known for her beauty and her skincare; to honor her [because] these essential oils hail from her part of the world.”
Wandering Cow Farm in Charles City, named for owner Mary Murphy’s infamous cow that frequently escaped the farm, started out as a forage project for her kids. She soon turned to soap-making as a way to help treat her daughter’s psoriasis and acne.
Like many local businesses, Murphy’s business took a hit amid the coronavirus outbreak. As a response to the pandemic, she began making face masks and hand sanitizers. Murphy went through all the steps to get federal and ABC permits, so she’s able to buy alcohol from manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and distilleries. For Murphy, helping people find these essential products during coronavirus was an important contribution to the local community.
GOAT Soap also felt the effects of coronavirus this year. Launched in March, right as the pandemic started creeping into the United States, Emily Gannon said the extra time at home was helpful. It ensured that their products and website were ready before launching, and it was also beneficial to customers.
“It has helped that people have had a chance to slow down,” she said, “and evaluate the products they use in their life.”
For Neilson-Hall and Long, there were some challenges in operating during the pandemic. A majority of their income came from farmer’s markets and exhibitions. With cases spiking in Virginia in past weeks, these events were cancelled.
The reopening of the South of the James Farmers Market allowed Neilson-Hall and her husband to experiment with selling their product under social distancing guidelines, but they barely made a profit.
“The little bit that we were bringing in was not worth the risk it was bringing into our family, with my high-risk husband,” she said.
In an average year, Long would attend 20 to 24 shows, one as far as Nashville, she said. This year, while some shows transitioned online, Long said the virtual markets do not offer the same intimate experiences and interactions as in-person markets.
Despite the obstacles that the coronavirus has created for these local businesses, website traffic has surged during the past couple months.
Long is thankful for her customers’ loyalty and the brand’s stockists — like Ashby, Whole Foods, Mamie’s Apothecary, and more — for their continuous support for her business. She also acknowledged the amount of free time she now has to develop her brand further.
“It allowed me to step back for a second,” Long said, “and to take time to start working on new products, like our liquid soaps. [It also helps] to hone in on the things that maybe you’d miss on a day-to-day normal year.”
The pandemic has forced many local vendors to restructure their business models, and these goat’s milk soap companies are no exceptions.
“Luckily, we have amazing, supportive customers who have followed us to this new platform and continued to support us,” Neilson-Hall said.