Final report for FNC19-1179
Hazel Hill Farm is a small, one-woman diversified farm specializing in pastured heritage pork, lard soap, free-range eggs, heirloom garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and other specialty vegetables. Currently on 12 rented acres, HHF sells at two weekly markets as well as through a weekly custom-order email. Emily has been making soap to sell at her markets for two years, after finding herself with an abundance of lard from direct-marketing retail cuts of pastured heritage pork. The rustic farmstead bars have been a great seller at the markets, but she had to do lots of research and formulation to create the bars, since the very few existing lard-based recipes either used sub-par ingredients and additives or created a sub-par bar of soap. Other market growers have expressed interest in making soap, but saw the barrier to entry as too high. Having done many hours of research to start her own soapmaking enterprise, Emily is very aware of the lack of readily available information and familiar with the goals of a farmer seeking to economically and efficiently add value to a commodity.
Many small or diversified pork producers find themselves with a backlog of lard in their freezers that is often discarded or sold cheaply. This lard can easily be turned into a useful value-added product (soap), but there is not a clear and approachable guide to starting a complementary soap enterprise and effectively marketing your product. This project aims to create a booklet specifically aimed towards market farmers that will guide them through the process of gathering essential materials economically, safely making cold process soap, and packaging, pricing, and marketing said soap.
Proposed Booklet Contents:
- Guide to essential tools, materials, and ingredients and where to find them
- Step-by-step instructions and safety precautions for cold process soapmaking
- Five tested and calibrated recipes for different batch sizes and oil ratios
- List of 15-20 fragrance ideas using all-natural essential oils
- Plans to cheaply build your old soap molds and slicing jigs for large batches
- Guide to pricing, packaging, and displaying soap at market or in retail locations
- Sample enterprise budgets for soap enterprises of different scales, including start-up costs and ongoing costs per batch
- Guide to marketing lard soap, including a downloadable professionally-illustrated informational poster
- Formulate and repeatedly test five recipes for lard-based soaps
- Create easy and economical plans for farmers to make their own soap molds
- Research and document different ways to package and display soaps at markets and in retail environments
- Create a guide to marketing lard soaps, including a downloadable professionally illustrated poster
- Collect the above and other pertinent information into a booklet freely available to farmers online via farmer networks
I will be using the cold process method to produce soap because though it takes 4-6 weeks to cure before it can be used, it creates a superior product that lasts longer for the consumer and retains value in stock for the market seller. Because the booklet is intended for use by sustainable pork producers who are marketing directly to their customers, I will focus on recipes using natural, sustainable products, minimize plastic packaging and waste, and avoid synthetic additives. Pastured and/or organic pork lard is a high-quality product, and the ingredients in the soap should only serve to elevate it. Similarly, customers who seek out high-quality pork at the farmers market are the target audience for soap made with simple, natural ingredients, prioritizing quality over flashy decoration. Finally, I will focus on making the booklet as easy-to-follow as possible, using clear instructions and pictures and illustrations when warranted. I will focus on making the process as efficient as possible for the busy market farmer, and provide realistic enterprise budgets they can consult before deciding to embark on soapmaking as a new enterprise.
See Lessons Learned.
Educational & Outreach Activities
See Lessons Learned.
Though I was unable to complete the second half of the project (namely, the production of the booklet), I did spend many hours creating and testing recipes, producing over 150 lbs of lard soap in the course of 18 months.
Some key lessons learned:
- Once rendered, lard should be stored in a cool place and used within about 3 months to avoid rancid oil and soap seizing.
- Only buy essential oils in amounts you plan to use in the course of a year to avoid degrading.
- Rather than produce a wide range of soaps right away, new soapmakers are better of starting with 3-4 varieties and seeing what customers in their local markets are drawn to or ask for. Especially if selling directly at a farmers market while also selling other products, this also limits the space taken up by a new product and cuts down on immediate labeling needs.
- For new soapmakers, it might be a good idea to do a few batches of hot process soap (ready to sell immediately) and cold process soap (ready to sell in 6-8 weeks) to start cashflow sooner.
- The easiest way to produce a large batch with uniform bars and little off-cut soap is to invest in a set of straight-sided loaf molds with silicone liners and a cutting jig. These are easily found online, and at prices low enough that making your own may not be worth it. If you don't want to invest too much initially, you can line boxes with freezer paper, but the cutting jig will still save many hours and pay for itself in reduced waste in a few batches.
- Off-cuts can be easily repurposed into $1 sample/travel bars, which are a nice way for people to try a new soap out before buying your full-sized options. You'll find that some people continue to buy multiple sample bars (at a higher cost/ounce) for the convenience.
- One easy and cheap way to cure your cold-process soap is on stacking plastic bread trays (or bulb crates) which allow for maximum airflow and eliminate the need to flip the bars halfway through the curing process.
- One key online resource for formulating soap recipes is soapcalc.net, which includes a recipe calculator to help soapmakers combine their oils and the correct amount of lye.
- Though lye can be dangerous, that should not put off new soapmakers as long as they do not cut corners on safety precautions (glasses, masks, gloves, correct materials).