Monday, March 1, 2010

Goat Magic: Nancy Butler & Lyric Hill Farm

She has gone from being a geology major and a Master Gardener to living a totally corporate lifestyle to making and selling goat’s-milk soap.   This last incarnation is clearly her happiest. “I have goats! I live on a farm!” she chortles. “I learned to drive a tractor! I can milk a goat!”

That one short speech says a lot about how Butler tackles everything. Whole-heartedly. Thoroughly. Her business, Lyric Hill Farm in Granby, Connecticut, has been in operation for a little more than a year. But there were about six months of trial and error, she admits: “Of course, I couldn’t do it the easy way and use somebody else’s formula. I had to make up my own formula. I wanted certain qualities that certain other soaps didn’t have – I didn’t want to have exactly the same soap as every other goat-soap maker around.”

The more you talk to her, the more you realize that all those disparate strands in her life aren’t so disparate, after all. A geology major at Cornell University with a minor in civil engineering, Butler loved working with nature. “Geology was in the engineering department and in the arts department,” she explains. “Geology allowed me to spend time outdoors. Ithaca is a beautiful place. And I got to travel to lots of places to do fieldwork – Wyoming, Montana….And it was absolutely beautiful.”

She did her stint in the corporate world, working for 10 years as an environmental and safety engineer at The Travelers in Hartford, Connecticut. “It was kinda like OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] from an insurance company’s point of view,” she explains. “I loved it – I was interested in how things were made.”

And then there was her passion for plants. In 1995, Butler took a Master Gardener course, working as a garden advisor at the White Flower Farm in Litchfield and as a horticulturist at Westmoor Park in West Hartford. She and one of her friends at White Flower Farm were, she recalls, “such confirmed plantaholics, I knew we had reached an all-time low when I was holding her by her ankles while she was rooting, no pun intended or” – she looks up from the Belgian linen washcloth she’s knitting, clearly re-thinking this – “intended, in the dumpster for plants. This arm comes out – she holds it [the plant] up and goes, ‘Tree peonies!’” Butler laughs. “It was like the Holy Grail.”

The goats butted their way into the picture later on, part of her son Austin’s “4H project run amok.” Lyric Hill Farm came about because they had a surplus of goat’s milk: “My kids were getting sick of goat cheese, and they said, ‘This has got to stop.’” Butler had always wanted to make soap, so she set up shop in the kitchenette off the front of their circa-1895 house. She prefers keeping the business small, she says, adding, “I don’t ever want to have large batches because I like the feel of it being hand-made and not a mechanized process. I would rather have multiple small batches that I can make by hand than have a large vat done by machine.” Butler has even begun knitting her own washcloths to sell along with the soap because she refuses to purchase cheap washcloths made in China “on account of their labor practices”; besides, she likes the rougher texture of the linen. And, of course, plant person that she is, she appreciates “the botanical connection. It comes from a plant[, flax,] so it kinda comes full circle.”

But that botanical connection comes into play in more ways than that. “I am very committed and tied into the sustainability of plants and farming and keeping as low a carbon footprint as possible, at least in my everyday life,” Butler maintains. As a cancer survivor, she is intensely concerned about what ingredients go into her soap. Not only does the milk come from the family goats, but the herbal infusions are from her own plants. She does use some “tried and true” essential oils, but everything is food-grade -- excepting, of course, the lye, which is needed to saponify the oils and turn them into soap.

She even uses rain water off the roof to dissolve the lye rather than run the risk of possibly offsetting the process with minerals from well water. “I used to come home from work with my suits and my laptop,” she laughs, “and here I am now with my buckets, getting rain off the roof.”

But it has all come together for Butler. She talks frankly about her bout with cancer – “It shook my world” – but she doesn’t allow it to define who she is. Her garden has helped with her healing. “I don’t have to smell them or ingest them,” she says regarding her flowers and herbs. “They’re just lovely to look at. For me, working in the garden is very spiritual.” And the goats have become part of that healing spell as well. “There’s something very magical,” Butler says thoughtfully, “about looking out on your pasture of goats, and the next day, you’re milking them, and it’s turning into milk for making soap, for making cheese.”

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