Goats help family pour sweet milk into small farm, soaps sold online

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Holding baby Elizabeth, Becky Ensinger prepares to sit down to milk a goat as her husband, Bill, shuffles buckets.

By David Tulis

Becky Ensinger’s soaps grace our shower stall dish and emit a pleasant, healthful fragrance. The couple supplies families at my church with eggs, though they won’t take a cash payment to avoid commerce on the Lord’s Day.

Mrs. Ensinger and her husband, Bill, 39, run a six-acre farm in Dayton, Tenn., the college town an hour north of Chattanooga. The tree-lined plot may have no name, but its owners are known to a small Internet clientele as Dixie Soaps, specializing in goats milk bath bars.

“We have a lot of different products for the whole farm,” he says as we stand near a building that lost a roof in recent storm. “Our main product is goat milk soap. There is about an ounce of goat milk in each bar of soap. It gives it a smooth silky feel. It’s also, more importantly, healthy for your skin.”

Local economy’s intersecting small strands

A record tells how well goats produce milk. Any animal giving less than 1½ tons a year isn’t kept.

The Ensinger farm is a picture of man’s efforts to impose order and profit on the ungoverned forces of plant and animal life. To keep chickens and tomato vines curled toward the service of man, work is constant, though its rhythms vary.

While Mrs. Ensinger takes care of Elizabeth, 9 months, and Laura, 2, and packs a single soap bar into a mailing envelope, Mr. Ensinger is busy strawing a shed, exercising husbandry over the goats that are milked twice a day.

The stars of the farms are goats. We stand in a field, surrounded by seven of them. They nuzzle my pant leg, send their tongues nipping for the corner of my notebook and pester me as we chat about everything from yellow jackets to apple trees.

He has 70 chickens in a red building from which proceed four fence-encased runs. When grass is lush, a denuded one will be closed off and the chickens shifted over, much to their gratification. Joel Salatin, the noted American innovator of sustainable agriculture, does similar thing on much bigger scale, and rotates chickens through each acre, with fowl following cow., Mr. Ensinger says.

The Ensingers also have three bull calves they are raising for meat. The pink slime uproar has put an upward pressure on the price of quality parts of the cow.

Near two apple trees are a pair of bee hives. “I like honey,” Mr. Ensinger says. “We use honey in two of our soaps. We also hope to use bees’ wax in some of our products. We have lip balms. One of the soaps has bees’ wax, as well.”

Bees add a special ingredient to the soaps. But the main element in a bar is an ounce of goat’s milk. “It has a very similar P-H to human skin,” says Mrs. Ensinger in her kitchen, holding Elizabeth on her hip. “It’s full of minerals and vitamins, and it’s great for your skin. It softens it. It nourishes it.”

She has been making soap for 12 years, and finds the hardest part of the soap process is finding souls via the Internet to order bars. The Ensingers are advertisers on this website; please patronize their online shop when you’re done here.

Earthy narrative of spiritual realities

Fresh eggs from the Ensinger’s farms are delivered most Sundays to the Tulis and other families at Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga.

As Mr. Ensinger retraces the steps of chores he had done earlier in the day, he insists on the idea of economizing. Almost everything has its use, and very little is wasted. Grass cuttings are dried for floor lining. He builds rafters for hay from pallets discarded by Tractor Supply Co. in Dayton. He redesigns a goat feeder to avoid overfeeding and reduce the farm’s largest expense.

“Understanding the idea that we didn’t create any of this life — God did —and God designed it not only to grow,” he says, “but to reproduce, and produce food that is useful for us to eat. We didn’t do any of that. So, no matter how hard we work to make the structures to make this stuff happen, it still has to happen on God’s timing.”

“It seems like farming would make you small in the order of things,” I offer, “though you have a stewardship role. It’s still not in your hands — in a way. There’s a care of something that is beyond your making and beyond your power to change it, though you are a steward and though you do fence things in and build buildings.”

This lavender mint soap and many other varieties are hand made by Becky Ensinger.

“That’s absolutely right,” he replies. “We are stewards of all these things. But they have the genetics in them to produce the food that we can eat. We’re dependent on God.”

The sequence of necessities keeps a farmer humble, Mr. Ensinger says.

“The rhythm in farming ultimately comes from God. Man has tried to alter that rhythm with fertilizer and pesticides, but the best farming practices as far as the most healthy food you can produce is to let stuff grow the way God intended it to grow — the way God designed it to grow.

“The goats produce milk, and cows and other animals that produce milk need to be milked once or twice a day, and if you get off that rhythm they can either dry up or have too much milk and have all kinds of problems.”

Non-money economics

Mr. Ensinger, a native of Summit, N.J., moved three years ago to Dayton to work for a lawn care business of a friend. He continues to work for Tim Leary and also toils up to 10 hours a week as a restaurant dishwasher. These two jobs account for a good part of the family’s livelihood. Until farming becomes more profitable and the soap business grows, the family counts on investment income and savings for half of its financial support, Mr. Ensinger tells me.

The family investment in farming isn’t measured solely in dollar terms. The farm produces food the family eats, sometimes providing three-fourths of a given plate. Food from the private economy saves the family from entering the public economy for nourishment.

Mr. Ensinger keeps a chart of the milk output of each goat by name. A goat produces between one and two tons of milk a year. A top milker produced 4,200 pounds of milk in a year. Hermione has squirted 10 pounds of milk in several six-minute sitting. Half of the goats’ output is fed to the calves. Some the Ensingers enjoy by the cup.

The milk enters the money economy at two points. Some is sold for Federal Reserve notes to consumers who buy a herd share. The rest is in Dixie Soaps products.

“A little sleep, a little slumber,” he says, quoting scripture “a little folding of the hands to rest. And poverty will come on you like a thief. That’s demonstrated very clearly here. If you don’t keep things up, like the barn, they come apart. *** You’re farm’s going to rubble in short order.”

Milk splurts into a bucket under Becky Ensinger’s rhythmic hand motions.

An early morning light shines in the face of Bill Ensinger as we tour his farm in Dayton, Tenn.

Tomatoes picked, the Ensingers head back to the house. From left are Laura, Becky, Elizabeth and Bill.

Three tomatoes from this bucket went home to the David Tulis family, the largest of which that dad enjoyed on a sandwich yesterday.

Elizabeth Ensinger grabs a tomato, which she proceeds to munch on as her parents pull tomatoes.

Discarded pallets make fine props for hay in an Ensinger barn. Yes, Mr. Ensinger is “sustainable.”