Califonia Bountiful

Going the way of the goat

September/October 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Woman's soap-making venture becomes family enterprise

Jill Spruance runs Basilwood Farm in Fresno County with her husband, Kim. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

About 10 years ago, Jill Spruance was an empty-nester with an enterprising spirit and 5 acres of land in the winding Fresno County foothills.

She and her winemaker husband, Kim, wanted to put that acreage to good use. So she bought a few dairy goats, with the idea of having plenty of fresh milk for the couple. Soon, however, they were awash in milk. And Jill, who always dreamed of starting a side business, began researching what to do with the extra milk (besides make cheese). The answer was soap.

"At the time, I didn't even know you could make soap with goat's milk," said Jill, a bubbly bundle of energy and action. But over more than a few months, she learned to make soap—and both halves of the couple were sold on the better feel of their skin.

"Honest to goodness, the first day we used it our skin was unbelievable," she said. "The only reason was the soap. So I said to my husband, 'This could be the product, the thing that we were looking to do.'"

Now, this one-time side venture is a full-time family enterprise in the small community of Prather, about 20 miles northeast of metropolitan Fresno. Basilwood Farm produces all-natural lines of goat's milk soap, lotions, bath bombs, scrubs and more that have won fans across the country.

Basilwood Farm produces goat's milk soap and other skin products. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

It all starts with goat's milk

The company has a robust online presence in addition to an on-site farm store and roughly 35 to 40 wholesale accounts. It has overtaken the Spruance homestead (now the store) and converted Kim from winemaker to goat milker, bath bomb mastermind and general manager of the farm. Daughter Shelby Roberts works in production and teaches the occasional cheese-making class, while daughter Morgan Condie takes care of bookkeeping. Even the grandkids help, in the form of inspiration.

The spunky goat micro-herd or tribe has grown from two to more than a dozen "girls" with whimsical names such as Maid Marian, Lady and Cricket. These are the frontline members of the team—and the literal inspiration behind the company motto: "Go the Way of the Goat."

Jill is the driving force behind Basilwood Farm. The Spruances have lived on the rolling acreage for about 26 years, and it is the place where she homeschooled their two daughters while Kim worked as a winemaker. Jill serves as chief soap-maker, marketing guru and creator behind products that blend goat's milk with other natural ingredients such as cocoa butter, locally sourced olive oil, coconut oil and even coffee butter.

Each bar of soap contains about 20% goat's milk, and the website points out that goat's milk contains natural alpha-hydroxy acids—a common ingredient in some facial creams and moisturizers—that help slough off dead skin and encourage the growth of new cells. Goat's milk also is rich in a variety of vitamins that help heal the skin and pair well with natural oils and butters.

Jill Spruance creates a decorative swirl in the soap after pouring it into a wooden mold. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

From soaps to bath bombs

The heart of Basilwood Farm manufacturing is the "soap room," an airy workshop where colorfully swirled bars sit curing or parked for future sale alongside rows and rows of products on metal shelves. The most important book here is the green binder titled "Jill's Recipes."

Those formulas unfold in diverse lines such as Caeden's Choice, a fragrance- and color-free bar named for the Spruances' first grandson; California Dreamin', a swirl of bright colors with hints of sage and mint; and Glamping, a blend of pine and citrus. New scents are introduced regularly, such as Birchwood (woodsy) and Grandpa Mac's Pipe Tobacco and Cashmere (named for the scent memory of Jill's grandfather).

She uses a cold process method of soap-making that relies on lye to produce the necessary chemical reaction, known as saponification. Lye (which disappears in the process), oils or butters, raw goat's milk and any color and scent are combined and then poured into wooden molds, artfully stirred to produce decorative swirls in some varieties and cured or hardened for as long as a month. Bars are cut, edged or smoothed and then ready for packaging and sale.

Kim Spruance cuts freshly made soap. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

On "megabatch" days, Jill and Shelby typically produce 640 to 720 bars of soap, an efficiency that has helped them keep pace with demand. Shelby makes the other products except for bath bombs, which are Kim's province.

"Bath bombs are persnickety," Jill said. "That's why I make soap."

Kim holds a bachelor's degree in viticulture and enology from California State University, Fresno. His knowledge of chemistry came in handy in the science of developing bath bombs, those spheres that fizz and dissolve when tossed into water.

At the beginning, it took about 400 trials to find the right balance of ingredients. Flawed bath bombs can fail to stick together, land without fizzing in the water or melt prematurely before touching a drop. Then there are the bubbles and skin feel to consider.

"It probably took me three weeks, a month, to get it tuned in how I wanted it," Kim said. "I take a lot of baths."

Visitors Maryam and Tracy Webster compare soap fragrances. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Growing the business

Every morning, the Basilwood crew prints customer orders, pulls products and then double-checks everything. Jill writes a personal note—something appropriate for the season—before each order is boxed for the post office.

All the processes represent a serious investment in hard work and homework. Before launching the business, Jill researched and practiced soap-making for months while also building awareness on social media.

"By the time we started selling product, people were interested in it," she said.

Jill also went on the road to various shows and pop-up events. Anyone who didn't know much about goat's milk soap usually left her table with an education and a bar of soap. Then a segment on local television exploded the business.

"I had to go buy more goats, because I didn't have enough milk to fill the orders," Jill said. "It was a blessing and a curse all at the same time."

Eventually, the growing need for farm store space and storage forced the Spruances to abandon the main house. "We were down to the den, one bedroom and the kitchen," she said, so they upsized the business by moving to a smaller home on the property.

From left, Tom Webster, his son Nathan, 8, daughter Maryam, 13, and wife Tracy of Bakersfield enjoy feeding the goats while visiting the farm. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Putting out the welcome mat

In pre-COVID days, the farm was a busy hub for all sorts of pop-up events, field trips and workshops for making bath bombs, cheese and more. Those were largely canceled as the pandemic set in, and even the farm store closed for a time.

There is a greater sense of normalcy now with the return of pop-up events and the lure of the farm store. For example, the Webster family—fresh from a stay at an area Airbnb—stopped by one Saturday as they traveled home to Bakersfield. The foursome—father Tom, mother Tracy, daughter Maryam and son Nathan—browsed leisurely and sampled scents before settling on products chosen specifically for each family member and skin type.

Goat's milk products "are really good moisturizers and they don't give you a lot of buildup on your skin," Tracy said just before the family headed out to meet the goats.

On the farm, the Basilwood team hopes everyone feels as comfortable as a friend or family member.

"We have always looked at this as sort of sharing our property," Jill said. "People get that feeling when they're here—they don't feel like they're intruding. The farm store is our old house, so you kind of feel like you're welcoming people into your home."

Cyndee Fontana-Ott

Basilwood Farm goats play in the field. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Smart, playful and kind of sneaky

At Basilwood Farm in Prather, the goats are more than just the source of milk for soap. They're also a big part of the charm.

The dozen or so dairy goats (the population fluctuates) at this Fresno County foothill property play major roles in marketing, production and atmosphere. OG (original goat) Allie beams from every Basilwood Farm label, and the micro-herd figures prominently in the farm's social media.

Here are the basics: Each doe weighs between 120 and 140 pounds and produces a half-gallon to a gallon of milk daily. Each goat has a name that's usually based on a theme, which explains Sage, Thyme, Lavender and Ginger.

Jill Spruance, the head soap-maker in the family business, said most of the goats are very comfortable around visitors.

"Every year when kidding season happens, people come up and we get the babies out and people handle them," she said.

The COVID-19 kids are a little less social because they haven't been around as many people.

"But if I go in there with my apron on and I sit on that log, they'll all come eventually," she said. They don't stop there.

"Within minutes, my shoelaces are untied, my apron is untied, they're nibbling on my hair and then they'll go for the earrings," she said. "You have to get up and leave, because you're outnumbered." So each goat is smart, playful and kind of sneaky. Kim Spruance, Jill's husband and the farm's general manager, said they use their lips and mouths to untie knots and can unlatch the gate if it isn't precisely closed.

"They really are browsers, not grazers, so they like being out where the brush is, and the woody vines and stems," Jill said. "Goats are smarter than dogs. They will open the gate and let themselves out. ... Then it's a mad dash to get them."

One trait they do share with man's best friend is watchdog. If someone is approaching, the herd runs to a specific spot. If someone is leaving, they'll run to a different one.

"If there is something wrong, they will holler their heads off," Jill said. "They will let you know. They are pretty amazing animals."

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