EAST BERNSTADT, Ky. - Jill Partin was raising and breeding dairy goats three years ago on her Appalachia Animal Farm in Laurel County when she encountered a problem.
“I had all this goat’s milk that I didn’t know what to do with,” Jill said.
Jill’s mother, JoAnn Smith, suggested she do something her grandmother, Elsie, passed down from her great-grandmother, Lela – something JoAnn remembered from her childhood.
“My mother said, ‘You know, you can make soap out of that,” Jill said.
JoAnn recalled not-so-fond childhood memories of stirring a mixture of wood ash, water, and lard in a large cast iron kettle over a fire. “She said, ‘It was hot, and I used to hate it,’” Jill said.
Her mom’s suggestion “lit a fire,” so to speak, under Jill. She started researching the Internet on how to make goat’s milk soap and taught herself how to do it. Rather than “cook” the soap, Jill learned a cold-processing method for goat’s milk that she uses to make not only soap but lotion, body butter, and bath balms.
“I come from a long line of soap makers,” Jill wrote on the website for the farm’s soap business, www.kentuckygoatmilksoap.com, which she started in February 2014. “I guess you could say making soap is in my blood.”
Jill made a series of YouTube videos to share her goat’s milk soap-making methods. You can watch them here.
Jill’s farm now houses three businesses – goat and sheep breeding, and soap making. The farm is a member of Kentucky Proud and two brands under the Kentucky Proud umbrella – Appalachia Proud and Homegrown By Heroes. Jill’s father, Ray Smith, was a member of the U.S. Navy Seabees, a construction battalion, during the Vietnam War. Jill and Ray together run Appalachia Animal Farm’s goat- and sheep-breeding operation.
Jill received a promotional grant from Kentucky Proud for packaging her soaps and lotions. She also got a small-scale farm grant from Kentucky State University, which she used to purchase a goat’s milk pasteurizer, cream separator, and soap cutter.
“Kentucky Proud has been really great,” Jill said. “‘The Fish Tank’ [marketing seminar] in February was a learning experience and very educational.
“I’d like to get into wholesaling [soap] so I don’t have to travel to the festivals. We always go to the Berea Art Festival, and we will be at [the Kentucky Proud] Incredible Food Show for first time in October. We want to get in Kentucky Crafted: The Market.”
It was Ray who started the whole goat-farming thing. Jill grew up a “city” girl in nearby Corbin, where her dad was a building contractor.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my parents did,” Jill said. “They always wanted one.”
Want became reality in 1997 when Ray retired. He moved the family to Flat Lick in Knox County and bought some Boer goats, which are raised for their meat.
Jill prefers the playful dairy goat breeds.
“I like my Nubians,” she said. “They’re real cute with their floppy ears and personalities.”
Jill bought her 7½-acre farm near East Bernstadt eight years ago. Her dad has since moved to a 6-acre spread five minutes away.
Jill has a herd of 25 registered French Alpine and Nubian dairy goats. When they see her outside, they come running and bleating.
“My mom said, ‘I swear, it sounds they’re calling, “Mom! Mom!”’ Jill said. “They’re like dogs. They’ll take their head and flip your hand because they want to be petted.
“They all have names. Rose and Cookie were the first two. They started my obsession with goats.”
Jill’s 5-year-old son, Josiah, has taken to goats as well. He placed runner-up in showmanship last year during the 4-H/FFA goat show at the Laurel County Fair. One of Jill’s French Alpine goats won its class.
Jill’s nickname at her church is “the goat lady,” a far cry from her occupation as a restaurant manager 10 years ago. Her management career ended at age 24 when she was stricken with Crohn's disease.
“I had to stop working for a long time,” Jill said. “I had to have multiple surgeries, and my colon was completely removed. But the Lord has taken care of me.”
Back on her feet, Jill now stays busy tending to her sheep and goats, and making soap.
“When I started making soap, I would give it to my parents, family, and friends,” Jill said. “Everybody loved it. They would tell me, ‘I need some more,’ so it seemed like a good business to start.
“More people are looking for natural products without all the chemicals and detergents. It took on a life of its own.”
Instead of the three ingredients of her mother’s day, Jill’s modern recipe includes cocoa and shea butters; avocado, coconut, and olive oils; safflower; and tallow.
“Combine all those skin-loving ingredients with goat’s milk,” Jill wrote on the company’s website, and “you have a product that your skin will soak up and love.”
In addition to an online boutique on the website, Jill sells her soaps at Renfro Valley Country Store and The Corkscrew Inc. in Whitesburg, where her younger sister, Angie Smith, lives.
Her product line also includes Mason jar candles, made using beeswax from several local beekeepers.
One thing that sets Jill’s soaps apart is her artistic touch. Jill makes “cupcakes,” but not the kind you bake in an oven. The base of Jill’s version is made of bath balm, while the top is made of soap.
“They look like the cupcakes you eat,” Jill said. “A lot of people buy them for gifts, and people put them in their bathroom for the scent.
“I’ve made baby shower favors for a gentleman in Wisconsin. He wanted yellow ducks [made of soap] in satin bags.”
In April, Jill began making Apollo soap using imported Laurel Berry oil from Turkey combined with castor and olive oils and goat’s milk.
“It has really good healing properties for skin irritation,” she said. “I take it to craft fairs to get feedback.”
Jill’s top soap sellers are Forever Love and black raspberry vanilla.
Jill’s soap-making has graduated from a mixing bowl, which made 19 bars, to a 5-gallon bucket, which makes 66. She said she can make 330 bars per day by herself.
“If business increases, I could hire employees,” Jill said. “The most time-consuming thing is measuring all the ingredients.
“I’d like this [business] to go as far as I can possibly take it,” she added. “I would love to have my stuff in every town I can possibly get into in Kentucky, but I want to stay handmade. I don’t want to get too big because the personality gets lost.”
For more information, go to www.appalachiaanimalfarm.com.