Documenting the various makers that comprise west elm’s LOCAL program often keeps us within city limits, whether it be an illustrator’s studio in Brooklyn, an artist’s residence in Austin, or a wood shop in Minneapolis. Occasionally, though, this work takes us to some unexpected places. On a late-summer day last year, it found us driving down the farm-dotted roads of Western New York’s Finger Lakes region to the bucolic village of Bloomfield. The reason for the trek was to meet Sara Turnbull, the founder of Chicory Farm Soap, a small business that produces natural, goat milk-based body care products.
We meet Sara close to her home, outside of a red-painted barn that her goats live in. The air is hot and, absent the noise of traffic, hums with the sound of insects and the occasional goat bellow. While some people hightail it out of their hometowns after graduating high school, Sara decided to stick close to home, putting her experience with agriculture and sustainability to good use on her family’s land.
Despite Chicory Farm’s impressive output, its operations are small. Sara introduces us to her goats and guides them outside for a quick jaunt across a relatively untamed pasture; they follow closely at her heels as if following a parent. After a brief demonstration at the goats’ milking station, we drive with Sara to the garage where she currently produces and packages her soaps. The space smells amazing, a combination of soap bases and the essential oils used for their fragrance. The fascinating thing about Sara’s process is how all-encompassing it is. From the rearing of her goats to the final knot of twine placed on a bar of soap, every facet comes into contact with Sara’s hands and connects back to the seasonal rhythms of nature itself. For an operation that comprises only a few people and a handful of goats, that’s saying something! Take a peek at our visit at Chicory Farm and hear what Sara has to say about her process and work space below.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I’ve always been a maker, ever since I was a kid, since I came from a family of makers. My mom sewed and hand-smocked children’s clothing, and my dad is one of a few people in the world who restore antique firearms historically accurately. I got into making goat milk soap and other body care products because of my love for making, animals, and environmentally-conscious products. It’s important to me that I make a product that people are not only attracted to but that also is a safe alternative to what’s currently on the market.
Tell us about your studio space.
Getting smaller and smaller every day! Right now we’re (my sister and I) working out of my parents’ solar-powered barn while my husband finishes work on our new studio, which is attached to our home. We actually just expanded into another room in their barn as our business continues to grow. We age our soap on metal racks positioned around the room and use collapsible tables in the center of the room for various activities-wrapping soap, making soap, filling orders, packing up for craft shows, etc. Our new studio is twice as big as our current space and is heated (and cooled!) by geothermal heat. We hope some day to add a wind turbine to power our all-electric home and studio!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
One of my favorite perks of being a small business owner is waking up without an alarm clock! After a leisurely morning of reading in bed, making breakfast, and attending to urgent emails I usually head to the studio around 10am. I spend the first few hours cleaning up, filling orders, and determining what needs to get done over the course of the day. After lunch and some more reading at home I head back to tackle a short (2-4 hour) project or prep for a larger project the next day. The goats get fed and watered on my way back home around 5pm. I spend the evening on my other hobbies: knitting, weaving, cooking, and of course Netflix!
Describe your process.
My physical process of making soap is constantly evolving, based on my situation. For a while, I made a traditional cold-process soap on the stove top in my kitchen. As our equipment grew and our studio situation changed (my mom wasn’t too keen on me taking over her kitchen), I adopted a modified cold-process method that uses the heat produced from the mixing of lye and water to melt the solid oils (coconut and shea butter). In our new studio, we’ll be going back to the traditional cold-process, but with a twist: instead of heating the oils on the stove, we’ll use drum warmers to heat them up right in the barrels they come in.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I seek inspiration from the people I meet and talk to, mostly at craft shows and trade shows. I’m always striving to find ways to help people, and to create products that people are interested in right now. Customers are always looking for a product to help soothe their body and spirit and aromatherapy body care products are often an excellent answer.
Why do you love Western New York?
The seasons, the peace and quiet, the room to think and imagine and create. The abundance of craft beer and wine helps too! I can imagine living somewhere else, but I can’t imagine not always having roots here. Growing up I always thought that people who moved back to their small hometown after college were uninteresting and unimaginative, but now that I realize how much there is to learn and experience in one small part of the world I prefer this slow, deliberate observance of life.