- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Maybe it was that last Facebook post that put them over the top. Or, maybe it was the #voteforgoats hashtag.

Little Seed Farm’s goats aren’t telling, but they do look a bit smug.

The goats, along with Little Seed Farm owners James and Eileen Ray, recently pulled in a cool $25,000 by snagging the top spot in furnishing retailer west elm’s, “We Love LOCAL Small Business” grant contest.

The Wilson County farm is home to a herd of around 30 goats, whose milk is blended with farm-grown herbs to create organic soap and skincare products.

The contest was fierce, but the goats carried the day, says Jim Brett, president of west elm.

“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,” Brett says.

“We, along with the public voters, were so impressed with their products, their story and, in particular, their ethical business model.”

Back on the farm, Jim Ray’s still pretty amazed that Little Farm won.

“When we made it to the list of 20 finalists we were excited because there were a lot of entries,” Ray says. “But we were up against some companies that are a lot bigger than us, so we knew we’d have an uphill battle from a social media standpoint.

“So we got busy generating interest from our fan base with the #voteforgoats campaign, and we did some old-school networking by passing out flyers at all the markets and craft fairs we attend.

“We really put it all out there, and I think that made the difference.”

Cute goats and Instagram aside, the Rays’ story is compelling.

Jim, an Albuquerque native who earned degrees in business and economics at Rhodes College in Memphis, and Eileen, who studied fashion in Milan, Italy, and grew up in Chittenden, Vermont, met by chance in New York City.

As their relationship deepened and future plans were being made, life in the Big Apple was not in the mix.

They knew they wanted life in a smaller or even rural area, and they looked into projects they could run together, such as a bed and breakfast. They settled on farming, and moved to Wilson County to set up Little Seed in March 2011.

So far so good, but goat-milk soap as opposed to more common crops? That part was pretty much an accident.

“The soap came out of nowhere,” Ray explains. “We were making it for ourselves, our family and friends - more of a hobby. When we moved down here, I was working remotely for my New York employer, and we were just focused on becoming self-sufficient over three to five years.

“Six months after we got here, my employer went out of business and our whole financial situation went upside down. When that happened we had to look at what we were doing, and the soap seemed to be our most popular offering, so we just moved ahead with it.”

Since then, it’s been full steam ahead in terms of both volume and creativity.

The Rays have tied up with Jackalope Brewery to create a goat’s milk-beer soap, and they are always on the lookout for the next opportunity. They also make several varieties of cheese, which they distribute through a CSA model as well as through farmers markets and craft fairs.

A skin care line looms now, once the tricky process of blending various essential oils and elements with the goat milk, and preserving the mixture, gets ironed out.

“Goat milk is higher in fat content, so it’s great for soaps from a moisturizing perspective,” Ray explains. “It also has acids and enzymes that are really good for skin, so we’re sure that will work well in lotions.

“But those are complex in terms of chemistry than the cold-process soap, so we’re doing the research and development in terms of formulas and equipment needed.”

The Rays have three types of goats: Alpine, Nubian and Sonnin. They do some breeding, and also rotate animals in and out.

All the goats live outside and forage for their food. Portable pens allow them to move the goats around the property to fresh grass.

Milking takes place twice a day, every day.

The Rays also keep pigs, roasting one recently for Thanksgiving, as well as chickens, guinea fowl and, most recently, some donated ducks.

Little Seed Farm is a big hit with agritourists, who come out during the spring and fall for farm tours that include some serious goat time, as well as soap-making and skincare classes.

The goats also have a fervent admirer in George Ray, who just turned a year old and is attempting to say ‘goat’ as his first word, his father says.

“He’s still working on it, but we’ve already got him boxing soaps, and he’s pretty good at it,” Ray notes.

The west elm grant funds will help grow the skincare line and other products by helping to fund new equipment and buildings for operations and storage, and also let the Rays continue to expand their sales empire.

Their products are now in 60 boutique stores in more than 20 states, and recently expanded into seven Nashville-area Kroger stores.

They hope to keep growing close to home in 2015 while maintaining regional market penetration.

“There’s a high demand for organic, handmade skin care and soap products, so we’re hoping to bring what we have to the rest of the South and, potentially, be all across the country,” Ray says.

“But we want to make sure we can keep up with demand, and keep creating a quality product, so we’ll only grow as quickly as we can do that.”

Their growth also will be tied to the productivity of a certain group of four-legged social media mavens as well.

“We’re OK on goats for now; we even have a couple of spares that we keep just for fun,” Ray says. “But if we need more, we’ll certainly get them. Goats are great.”

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