Date June 8, 2008 at 10:00 PM
Admittedly, I tend to have an overactive imagination. When allowed to wander untended through the amazing carnival of sights and smells that is the Santa Fe Farmers' Market, I stare at everybody-at their tables full of locally grown and produced goods, invariably losing myself in reveries about their lives. Usually, they turn out to be a lot more ordinary than the romantic tapestry I've imagined. But not in the case of Daven Lee.
Owner of the local business Milk and Honey Soap, Daven's childhood was the perfect launching pad for someone who would grow up to make handmade soap in her kitchen out of her own goats' milk and bees' honey. Although she has no discernable accent, Daven grew up in the semi-rural section of upper-Eastern Tennessee which she describes as "home of the Carter family, Appalachian country." When she was nine, her mother, a fiber artist, took a caretaker job for a nearby historical estate, a sort of living museum. Located in the tri-state area where Tennessee straddles North Carolina and Virginia, the property served as a way-station of sorts back in the 1800s, where travelers could exchange horses and goods on their way elsewhere. This estate was Daven's backyard. "It was a big, bustling place," Daven remembers, "mostly woods, with a creek running through it, and this great old barn in back. They raised animals and lived off the land. It was open to the public so there'd be festivals displaying traditional crafts-really interesting people worked there. I was an only child and I made friends with them. I used to watch one man refurbish the log cabins using old tools and traditional building methods. This whole experience, four or five years, my formative years, really, instilled in me a strong value for the authentic ways of creating something from scratch. To me, adulthood meant somehow getting back to that feeling."
Some twelve years ago, when Daven and her husband moved to the Santa Fe area, they decided to settle in Glorieta, where the houses were more affordable and the landscape greener-the latter an especially important factor for Daven, homesick for woods. "We looked at [our current] house and-I had no plan for starting this business at the time-but I remember asking the realtor, "Can we have goats here?'" On their acre-and-a-fifth, they've incorporated such permaculture concepts as berms, swales, catchment systems and drip irrigation in order to plant fruit trees, raspberries and lavender, and someday a garden. The house, originally 645 sq. ft., is a passive solar design, which the family really appreciates for the warmth, cost-effectiveness and beauty it provides. A few years ago, Daven and her husband extended the space by building a straw bale addition.
Not long after moving there, Daven followed some deeply ingrained instinct and got a few goats, her "girls," whom she milks daily. The goats are definite pets, each with her own personality.
"Goats are a lot like dogs-they'll call out to you when they see you. I had a sheep once and when you looked in its eyes, it was as if there was nobody home." Goats are a whole different story, particularly one of their original goats, Taza, who has what Daven calls "a humanlike quality to her" and whom Daven's almost-seven-year-old son describes as his best friend. Daven swears that when you look deeply into Taza's eyes, "great thoughts and feelings of compassion are in there. She'll be still and let my son rub on her and hug her."
As well as love, the tiny goat herd provided the family with pails full of fresh frothy milk. Soon afterward, Daven got a hive and began keeping her own bees. ("Obviously, milk and honey go together!") And then, four years ago, as she describes on her website,
www.milkandhoneysoap.com Daven felt compelled to begin looking for a way to support her goat and bee "habit." "After all," she writes, "they eat a lot, the goats need their own house, sometimes they need to see the vet ($$$) and we like to feed them that expensive organic stuff." At first she thought she'd make homemade ice cream but, when licensing requirements for commercial food production proved daunting, she had a better idea. "Some good friends of mine are always experimenting with crafts, so we got together and tried making soap. I'd already bought a beautiful artisan soap mold and that's what I used that day." She found that, along with feeding her goat and bee habit, soap making also sated her bred-in-the-bone hunger for making something from scratch according to traditional ways. To help her get started, she located a goat milk soap maker mentor who lived in the village of Cerrillos, south of Santa Fe. "I'd call and ask her a million questions!" Daven laughs. But through constant experimentation and refinement, she soon honed the recipes and techniques down to create her own unique products: pure, all-natural soaps and deep-moisturizing bars made with no additives or artificial fragrances. Her products, all produced in individual molds imprinted with arresting images of bees, spirals, nursing babies, resting goddesses or sleeping cats, are good for the skin, soothing to eczema and rashes, softening for dry skin.
From April through December, production takes over the kitchen two or three times a week. "Soap is basically a combination of fats and alkali, so I start with two pots, one with olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, honey and beeswax, which I melt down to a rich liquid. The other pot is the goat milk which I slowly add lye into. When that gets to a specific temperature, I pour it into the oil, blend it together and bring it to trace (a little thicker than barbeque sauce), then pour the mixture into my molds." From there, the soap takes six to eight weeks before it's cured and ready for market.
"I think it's brilliant that, with just a small piece of land, a handful of goats and one beehive, I get to create products that I can make my living from!" Daven marvels. And she's quick to point out that she couldn't have done it without the Farmers' Market. "Anybody who lives in Santa Fe knows what an amazing part the Market plays for all of us! Anytime I go, I easily see 25 people I know. Even as it's been bounced around from one location to another in recent years, people will follow it. Because it's downtown, you can walk there. And in August, when we get our new space, which the City is leasing to us for the next 80 years, we'll be in the heart of the Railyard-which is exactly where the Market should be, at the heart of our culture!"
As a small-business person, she appreciates all that being a Market participant provides her. "How else could I get prime real estate like that for such an incredibly affordable price, with no advertising, relying completely on the reputation of the Market?" Daven's gratitude for such support from her community is heartfelt. Not only does she, in turn, support other local growers-One Straw Farm in buying their dried calendula flowers, with which she infuses the olive oil in her soap, neighboring beekeeper Steve Wall from whom she buys additional beeswax for her lotion bars-but this small entrepreneur takes her gratitude the extra mile.
"From April through December, I earmark five percent of my sales to give away. For instance, for several years in a row, I donated to the organization Impact Personal Safety." Then, because she wanted to make more of a splash with her five percent donation, she and others started a women's giving circle, pooling their individual donations. "We seek to support efforts that bring together opposing groups to work toward sustainable solutions to various issues," she writes on her website. "The mission of our endowment will follow the spirit of Martin Luther King's words: "Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one's enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.' We think this is the only way we can all truly find real, dynamic long term solutions to problems such as war, environmental destruction, poverty-the only way we can survive as a species on our planet."
After four years, Daven is ready to expand her business. "I kept wanting it to be more, but that small inner critic's voice would kill any chance of new ideas coming in. Then one day, my husband just asked me, "What is it you want to do?' and, surprisingly, a fully formed plan came out of my mouth! I saw that I really have to loosen up, that innovation for my business might mean totally taking a whole different direction. I'm looking at designing some original molds, with images that would be unique to my business. I'd like to have them made by a local sculptor, one I've worked with before.