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Betting on the Farm

When James and Eileen Ray decided it was time for a major change, they really went for it, trading in big New York City jobs for a small herd of goats on a sustainable farm in Tennessee.
Photographs by Jonas Jungblut

The money was good and they were in New York City, the epicenter of their chosen industries.

And they were miserable.

“Both of us started looking at the fields we were in and the people we worked for,” says James, “and we realized we don’t want to raise our kids in this environment. We decided to jump in and make the change in our 20s before we got sucked in further and ended up at 50 still wanting a different life.”

So the financier and fashionista did what any disillusioned young professionals would do…they became goat farmers. For real. The fact that they had zero experience with farming didn’t daunt them. “We knew we wanted to work together and do something entrepreneurial,” says Eileen. “We thought about a bed-and-breakfast or a small retail business, but the idea of farming was both intimidating and very interesting to us.”

betting-farm2From his office in Manhattan, James began searching for farms online until he landed on an abandoned 80 acres east of Nashville. The two pored over information on the local climate, sustainable agriculture, rotational grazing and the like, until they were ready to go all in. “We figured what we stood to gain in terms of quality of life far outweighed the risk,” says Eileen. “We were confident we wouldn’t die doing it. The worst that could happen was we would have to go crawling back to our former lives. Once we dove into the research it became real…and we had each other to convince ourselves we weren’t totally crazy.”

The first step was to coax plant life to return to soil that was completely fried from years of overuse. They planted native grasses and plants that offered up natural forage that would sustain the goats. Then it was time to bring in the animals. “When we first got the goats we didn’t know what we were doing,” admits James. “But we owned dogs, so we thought we knew something about animal care. We actually put collars on our two goats and led them to where we wanted them to graze. But within a couple days we realized we didn’t need to leash them—they had no desire to run off to the big city.”

Trial and error became their favorite new teachers. And though they had neighboring farmers scratching their heads (“They would check up on us often to make sure we didn’t fall into a sinkhole or something,” laughs Eileen), they even considered their rookie status a plus. “We didn’t grow up on working farms…but the way we wanted to farm was relatively radical,” Eileen says. “It was a new way of thinking, so we weren’t tied down by generational wisdom. Our ignorance helped us be fearless in maintaining the sustainable route.”

betting-farm3They were encouraged by the Nashville area’s burgeoning interest in the handmade and homegrown, including sustainable agriculture and artisanal goods. The area’s
multiple farmers’ markets and perceptible spirit of collaboration gave them the chance to study what worked for others in the community. “We became farmers’ market lurkers,” says Eileen. “We literally spent hours talking to everyone there and using those people as mentors.”

For the first couple of years, they focused on spinning the goats’ chemical-free milk into cheese, until they realized they needed a product with larger margins to keep the farm afloat. That’s where the best mentor of all came in—grandma. Eileen had learned soap-making from her grandmother, and the two would make soaps from the goats’ milk for family and friends at holiday time. They began getting requests for it during the off-season and eventually started hauling it out at the local markets.

It was a winning formula. The goats’ milk replaces water in the process, offering up gentle, nourishing and moisturizing butterfat, which soothes dry or irritated skin of even the most sensitive type. Because of its unique structure, in particular its short protein strands, the abundance of natural minerals and vitamins in the goats’ milk is easily absorbed into the skin, helping to moisturize, protect and heal.

betting-farm4But the formula is not completely new. In fact, Eileen searches for throwback methods that favor natural ingredients over chemical additives. “My grandmother will send me books about pioneer secrets and they’re so fascinating to study,” says Eileen. “I loved discovering that modern beauty can be extracted from natural materials. I mean it’s right there in your kitchen. If you took a strawberry and rubbed it on your face every day, you would have great-looking skin thanks to the vitamin C and exfoliating seeds.”

Research and development (which often happens at the kitchen table) led to more soap formulations using everything from activated charcoal (as it turns out, this is standard “equipment” in ambulances for its ability to absorb, bind and exfoliate toxins and irritants from the skin) to beer (in collaboration with Nashville’s Jackalope Brewery; the hops offer up amino acids). All of the soaps start with certified-organic olive or coconut oil, both of which are more environmentally sound and healthful choices than palm oil. Organic essential oils provide the fragrance. No artificial colors or fragrances are used. “We test on humans…ourselves,” Eileen laughs. “We even test on human babies…our son, George.”

The unique soaps have attracted a lot of attention, including from retailer West Elm, who awarded Little Seed Farm a $25,000 grant through its LOCAL initiative after they came out ahead on a public voting campaign last November. The money went right back into the farm, helping to pay for a recently completed solar unit that provides 120 percent of the farm’s energy. They also consulted with a chemist to help develop lotions…a trickier recipe to pull off. Newly hired employees mean the couple can spend a night away from the farm for the first time in more than two years.

“We’re still in shock that we built a viable business,” says Eileen. And though the two admit the road to a simpler, sustainable lifestyle has meant long days, serious manual labor and tolerating a few setbacks along the way, they are hard-pressed to come up with a single regret. “We’ve had some really shitty days here,” says Eileen. “An animal dies, or there’s a break in the fence, or a bunch of stuff goes wrong with the equipment. But farm drama is so much easier to deal with than city drama. Maybe it’s just easier to deal with crap when you’re happy.”

betting-farm5The Nits and Grits on Little Seed Farm

Who? James and Eileen Ray founded the farm in 2012 in Lebanon, Tennessee.

What? The couple makes chemical-free soaps and skin care from goat milk; packages their products in eco-friendly wrappings; and sells them online, at farmers’ markets and in specialty shops.

Why? The goal is to develop a farming model based on true sustainability, relying on few outside inputs. Goats, pigs and chickens nibble on native grasses, forage and healing herbs as they are rotationally grazed throughout the year.

Where? Go to littleseedfarm.com to find the goods.

betting-farm6Do you have what it takes?

We asked the Rays how to determine if sustainable farm living is the life for you. Here’s the scoop.

Be prepared financially for some lean start-up years. James found consulting gigs that paid the mortgage for two years until they found their way.

Be realistic about how you want to live. The Rays were motivated by the idea of an ethical, authentic lifestyle. That inner drive fuels them through long and often physical days outdoors in heat, sleet or whatever nature dishes up.

Be honest about who you are. Eileen knew there were strong elements of their personalities that assured success: “I’m a closet hippie; James is a closet hermit. Though our career paths suggested otherwise, we longed for a quieter existence.”

Start small. “Try a few chickens and see how it goes,” Eileen suggests. “Support sustainable farmers in your area…be a loyal customer and learn from them.”