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Soap Saves Lives at Stone City Farm

By Paul Dunn / pdunn@chronline.com
Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016 @7:30 pm

Boutique Hobby Soapery in Tenino Makes Chemical-Free Cleaning Bars Fueled by Goats

 

Kathleen Nece, left, and her daughter Catarina, greet the family's current tribe of six goats this week on their Stone City Farm in Tenino. Photo courtesy of Paul Dunn.

Just ask Tenino resident Bob Hardy. He’ll tell you.

But we’ll get back to Mr. Hardy later.

First, let’s meet Kathleen Nece. She makes the soap that saves lives …

“I didn’t think they’d try to eat the soap.”

That’s Nece speaking earlier this week from a modern wood-frame home on a 14-acre spread in Tenino. This is where Nece plies her trade as soap maker du jour.

But on this early summer afternoon she’s doing something a bit different. She has just spent the past 10 minutes or so wrangling her current tribe of six goats — who live in a pen adjacent the house — to stand still long enough to be photographed. Finally a couple of them do — only because they’re interested in nibbling the aromatic soap Nece brought with her just for the photograph.

You can’t blame them for thinking the stuff’s edible. This isn’t 20 Mule Team Borax, after all. These bars are on the high-falutin’ end of the essential oils cleansing spectrum, and Nece is the sous-soap chef.

It’s been about 15 months since the then 36-year-old christened the soap-making business she calls Stone City Farm. Her interest in the craft, though, began about eight years ago when the then-U.S. Army soldier was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

Talking one day with a friend who had an autoimmune disease got Nece to thinking about the chemicals found in commercial products and how they affect the human body. Soon after that conversation she began experimenting with chemical-free soap.

“I just started tinkering with it on and off,” Nece recalled. “It was a bit of a hobby back then.”

And now, eight years later, her products include 11 types of 5-ounce soap bars ranging from Peppermint Pumice to Luscious Lavender, Lemongrass and Man Bar (for men, but women like it, too). The soaps are not, by the way, for shrinking violets.

They’re handcrafted, instead, for clients who dig luscious-smelling bars with pronounceable ingredients — including, of course, raw goat-milk. And with the Man Bar — which contains sandalwood, peppermint and coffee grounds and is one of Nece’s most popular varieties — clients exfoliate as they wash.

“It’s extremely scrubby,” said Nece, who is currently an inactive Army reservist. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Owning goats isn’t, either.

On Stone City Farm, however, Nece’s mischievous milkers are the stars of the soap-making enterprise, though their manners are less than refined.

Since she began her business she’s watched her goats munch anything they could get their teeth on, but nibbling on soap was a first even for them.

But that’s OK. The affectionate goats — which cost from $300 to $600 each to buy, Nece said — are cute as all get out. And the females each produce from one-half to 1 gallon of milk per day. Nece requires 2 gallons of milk per day to meet her current demand for soap.

In addition to her six valuable goats — one Alpine breed and five Nigerian dwarfs — Nece shares the farm with her active duty-U.S. Army husband Roland Shackford, three dogs, some cats and chickens. Her two daughters — Kathleen, 11, and Catarina, 17 — share soap-making chores with Mom.

“Oh gosh, yes, they help with the business,” Nece said laughing, as though it couldn’t be any other way.

Though Nece also employs a young man part-time to care for her goats during the week, the soap-making enterprise can still consume her.

“As a small-business owner, it’s all about time management,” she explained. “You have to make sure you do everything the business needs, but also find down time to spend with the family.”

That down time isn’t likely to happen on weekends, at least from spring into fall. That’s when Nece sells her soap at farmer’s markets and fairs throughout the region. And in a first for her, she will be on hand today and Sunday to participate in the Centralia Antiques Fest.

“It’s a long-standing festival (in its 19th year) that draws a good crowd,” she said. “I love to go to events in neighboring communities and participate.”

That’s music to the ears of Centralia businesswoman Holly Phelps, who helped plan the antique fest.

“It’s a great time to come down and visit with all the vendors,” said Phelps, who owns The Shady Lady antiques in Centralia. “We have a great variety of merchandise, the weather’s supposed to be good and it should be a super fun weekend.”

Nece believes it.

“I expect to find as many customers at the Centralia festival as at any other events I attend,” she said.

But though she spends lots of time hawking her wares out in the sunshine, Nece makes about 90 percent of her sales online from her Stone City Farm website. And to her initial surprise, most of her most-loyal customers turned out to be men. They generally like the Man Bar the most, though Lemongrass and Peppermint Pumice are favorites, too. Women gravitate toward Peppermint Pumice, Luscious Lavender and Man Bar.

Figuring out what soaps to make keeps Nece on her toes.

“It’s a process of experimenting with different blends and paying attention to the requests of my customers,” she said.

She has about 1,000 repeat customers — many from outside Washington state — who buy from 300 to 500 bars a week.

“I get a lot of orders from Texas, California and the Northeast and some online sales from Washington, but just a few,” she said.

Some customers purchase dozens of bars at a time. A buyer in Dallas, for instance, works as a clothier and orders 75 bars every quarter to give as gifts to her clients.

Then there’s Bob Hardy. He may be a close second or third on the buy list, considering how much he enjoys Nece’s Lemongrass soap. In fact, said the retired vintage car enthusiast, the soap’s much more than a beautifully fragrant cleanser: It saved his life.

Here’s how Hardy tells it: Several months ago he was driving his 1964 Chevy hot rod truck on Old Highway 99 toward Stone City Farm. He suddenly realized he needed more lemongrass soap, so as he neared the farm — located off of Highway 99 — he slowed down, turned off the road and threaded his way along the farm’s long, twisty driveway toward the house.

As he rounded a curve, he felt the Chevy lurch but didn’t immediately know why — until a second later when the hot rod’s steering wheel fell off into his hands and the car rolled just to the side of a big tree and stopped.

“If I hadn’t run out of lemongrass soap and gone to Kathleen’s that day, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” said Hardy, 60, who figures if the steering wheel had fallen off on Highway 99 he would have been a goner. “It literally saved my life, and the lemongrass soap is the only kind I get now. I love it.”

Nece recalled the surreal incident with a belly-hearted laugh.

“It was just the funniest thing ever seeing Bob sitting there with the steering wheel in his hands,” she said. “And he stopped just in the nick of time next to the “Y’ in a tree.”

Another Stone City customer — Houston resident Debra Courville, 56 — doesn’t ride around in refurbished hot rods, but like Hardy she’s also a big fan of Nece’s soaps.

The Honey & Oat and Naked soaps do the trick for her most of the time, though when she needs a little tough love she scrubs with the Man Bar and Peppermint Pumice, too.

“As a person with chemical sensitivities and allergies, Stone City Farm soaps are a great find for me,” Courville wrote via email. … “And most impressive for me is the level of customer service that you receive, unlike many other online ordering companies.”

That’s “life-saving” customer service, as one devoted customer might say…

For more information about Stone City Farm visit www.stonecityfarm.com.



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