WINTERPORT, Maine — Shea Rolnick never meant to be a soap maker.
At Gentle Meadow Goat Farm in Winterport, the herd of goats bleating happily from the enclosure on Rolnick’s homestead isn’t for show. The animals aren’t for meat either.
“It was a therapy tool,” Rolnick explained as she stood outside her goats’ enclosure. The goats wait expectantly for Rolnick to enter so they can smother her with gentle rubs and nibbles.
She smiles as she glances toward them.
Rolnick was abused as a child and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. She developed anxiety as an adult, and her PTSD was so severe it prevented her from completing everyday tasks and worsened to the point where she barely stepped foot outside her home.
Eventually, she found it necessary to leave her job as a teacher. She also had a job as a veterinary technician but left because of her debilitating PTSD.
“I had to come up with some way to exist and support myself,” she said.
So she came back to animals — a constant throughout her life.
She started off with six chickens that depended on her for their care. She had to get out of the house at least twice each day to tend to them. Rolnick soon decided to bring a pair of pet goats into the therapeutic mix.
“I had never owned goats, so there was plenty of research to do on the specifics of goat ownership,” Rolnick said.
The friendly and loving pets were just what she needed.
Despite the fact that keeping pet goats was excellent therapy, she knew she would need to take care of the costs of their care. That was when she began expanding her herd. She started breeding her goats so the females would produce something that would help them pay for themselves: milk.
She started making soap from their milk and has built a business entirely from the ground up, despite her disability.
Rolnick takes in animals that have caprine arthritis encephalitis, a virus that can cause encephalitis in goat kids and chronic joint disease in adults. Many CAE-positive goats live out their lives without displaying any symptoms, but because infected goats can pass their disease onto other goats, they are often culled from the herd.
“I call them my herd of rescues and rejects,” Rolnick said, stroking the bristly head of Dory, a big girl who loves attention. Rolnick calls her the queen of the herd, and Dory features on all marketing materials and product labels for Gentle Meadow Goat Farm soaps.
Rolnick began to change as she started caring for her animals. She was spending more time outdoors, and other health issues, such as asthma and muscle spasms that once left her unable to perform physical activity, had lessened in severity.
She became a caregiver and a rescuer.
Today her goats are one of the most important aspects of her life. Her herd is demanding, but they bring so much more to her than she could ever give to them, she said.
“They have such huge personalities and they have such a huge love of fun that even on my worst days, I can come out and spend time with them and leave happier,” Rolnick said.
With the help of Maine AgrAbility, an organization whose purpose is “ to assist owners, operators, managers, employees and family members of farm, fishing or forestry businesses,” Rolnick has started a business that supports her “goat habit,” and gives her new purpose. Maine AgrAbility, a nonprofit collaboration of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Goodwill Industries of Northern New England, and Alpha One, which is funded by the United State Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, offers education for agricultural workers such as Rolnick whose lifestyle and business have been impacted by a disability.
“It’s a completely free resource for people working in production agriculture in Maine,” Lani Carlson of Maine AgrAbility said.
Carlson has been a point of contact for Rolnick and been part of the process to help her make modifications to her farm to help work around her disability.
Rolnick has been featured as one of Maine AgrAbility’s success stories.
“Shea is a great example,” Carlson said. “She’s our star pupil.”
After an initial assessment in which a Maine AgrAbility staff person visited Rolnick’s farm and observed how she worked, Rolnick worked with the programs to implement changes on her farm.
“We provide recommendations based on what we see on the farm,” Carlson explained.
Simple things such as incorporating different heights of milking stations based on the sizes of the goats to prevent muscle strain and taking the advice of staff to carry lighter buckets of water out to her goats were implemented, as well as more significant changes. These helped her adapt the work around her health issues.
“She took our ideas and made a beautiful work room in her home for her soap,” Carlson said. “It’s very methodically designed in terms of her work flow.”
For Rolnick, the program has been a great help.
“It’s a way of developing a life for me that works around my health concerns,” she said.
Last month at Gentle Meadow Goat Farm in Winterport, her home base and business location, Rolnick demonstrated her process for making her cold process soap containing Bold Coast Coffee from downeast Maine, a duty that requires careful attention, knowledge of chemical processes and patience.
“Soap making is oils and lye and a liquid of some sort,” Rolnick explained. For her, that liquid is goat milk. She milks all her goats by hand, and after milking, she goes to work.
She has created three different lines of soap: Gentle, Just Kidding and NautiGoat. The Gentle line uses common, soothing ingredients such as lemongrass and lavender essential oil; the Just Kidding line is more adventurous, with ingredients such as coffee, wine, chocolate and bacon fat; and the NautiGoat line is a coastal-themed line that uses ingredients such as kelp powder, sea salt and sea clay. The Gentle and Just Kidding lines are $6 per bar, and the NautiGoat line is $7 per bar.
Rolnick has her own proprietary blend of oils, and each oil has a purpose, from lather and hardening to cleansing and conditioning.
Cold process soap is created by mixing fatty acids and sodium hydroxide (oil and lye) which then triggers the saponification process — the process by which lye and oils combine to make soap.
She sell her soaps to wholesale partners in various places such as Silkweeds in Searsport. She also has an Etsy shop and participates in farmers markets and festivals. Rolnick makes about 2,500 bars per year in her studio and has 16 different varieties along with unique and seasonal batches she concocts on occasion.
“One thing that I discovered upon making my first few batches of soap was that it’s really fun. I really like making soap, so it was very easy to say, ‘well let’s keep doing this’ … It’s technically challenging, especially when you’re trying something new, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a chemical reaction that takes your ingredients and makes soap. And sometimes it turns into soap and sometimes it turns into a complete disaster. And you have to roll with the punches, and you have to be OK with that. It’s part of the fun of it,” Rolnick said.
With ingredients such as wine, sea salt, blueberry puree and even bacon fat, Rolnick has created soaps with an interesting twist. From products such as Before You Goat-Goat, a soap using Bold Coast Coffee, and Chocolate Milking It, a bar made with cocoa powder and cocoa butter, to Drunken Doe, a soap made with red wine and Greener Pastures, a soothing mixture of eucalyptus and peppermint, Rolnick produces soaps she says really make a difference in people’s skin.
“Your skin really does do better,” she said.
As for the goats, the costs of their upkeep is no longer a worry.
“They totally support themselves, 100 percent,” Rolnick said.
And as for her love for them, it’s apparent when her face lights up as she talks about her herd.
“They are goofy, they are silly, they are naughty little beasts. And I love every minute of it,” she said.