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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

After years of raising goats, this Wooster farmer says they're good for the mind — and the skin

Deb Gray stands with her goats in her barn at Harvest Hills Farm in Wooster, Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence
Ideastream Public Media
Deb Gray stands with several of her goats in her barn at Harvest Hills Farm in Wooster, Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. She has nearly two dozen goats, whose milk is used in her skin care products.

The local farming community is full of hardworking Ohioans who are finding new and creative ways to keep agriculture thriving. This story is part of a “Sound of Us” series featuring farmers in and around Wooster, Ohio.

There’s a good chance you could miss Harvest Hills Farm as you drive along Ely Road in Wooster. The house and red barn are tucked away behind another farm, off a long driveway.

But once you reach the end of that driveway, you won’t be able to miss the sounds of quacking ducks, twinkling bells and rustling hay.

Inside the barn, you’ll find farmer Deb Gray's babies — ducks, chickens and goats. On a recent visit, the ducks were the loudest, annoyed because their pond had frozen over. The chickens provided the quintessential barnyard sound with their clucking, and then there were the goats, Gray's pride and joy.

They flocked to the edge of their pen, greeting her when she entered the barn. They were surprisingly quiet, except for the sound of a few bells attached to some of their collars.

“Goats have always intrigued me. I love the personality. I love the fact that they're an easy animal to work with," Gray said.

Gray began raising goats over 20 years ago, when her daughters were kids in 4-H. One goat grew to two or three, which eventually grew to the two dozen or so Saanen and Toggenburg breeds she has now.

She first fell in love with goats while she was growing up in Geauga County. A neighboring farm had a goat and Gray found herself riding her bike back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of it outside.

One of Deb Gray's goats looks at the camera inside a barn at Harvest Hills Farm in Wooster, Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.
Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence
Ideastream Public Media
One of Deb Gray's goats looks at the camera inside a barn at Harvest Hills Farm in Wooster, Ohio on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Misunderstood creatures

Gray thinks goats are misunderstood, from how clean they are to how they should be raised.

"There's a lot of that [misconceptions], like goats are dirty animals," she laughed as she gestured around her barn, where hay lines the floor. "But not all year."

Matured male goats emit an intense odor during the breeding season, which can run from early fall through the spring, according to the National Institutes of Health. The culprit is androsterone, a testicular steroid hormone that produces a urine-like smell. Female goats don't carry the odor.

However, the females do have beards and horns, another thing Gray said many people don't realize.

"They all think it's just the boys, but nope," she said.

Goats are also very social creatures who will bond to their caretakers, their babies and their herd. Goat owners should always consider owning in pairs or groups, Gray said.

"Having two goats is definitely a good idea and yes, they will starve themselves and die if they lose a friend," she explained. "We've had that happen. There were two that were best friends and one died, and the other was just kind of like, 'Yeah, well, I quit' and within a couple of months, he passed also."

The key to understanding goats is being mindful of their temperament, which can vary by breed, Gray noted.

"I always tell people if they want to get goats, they should look into the different breeds, not just what they think is cute," she said.

Some breeds are more stubborn than others. Some will even panic and scream in unfamiliar situations. Gray said she has countless stories about her goats and their mischievous adventures, such as all the times they escaped from their enclosure to eat as much corn as they could before they were wrangled up again.

"The misconception is in the personality all the way around," she said. "They're like a dog. They'll come when you call them, they'll stay with their herd."

Goats also get a reputation for eating anything, which Gray said isn't necessarily the case. Many times, they're simply curious.

"They use their mouth to investigate things. They get a reputation for eating everything," Gray said, laughing as one goat tried to bite my microphone cord. "But she's curious. She wants to know, which she will pull at it, so they don't necessarily eat everything."

Nutrition knowledge is another misunderstood part of keeping goats, Gray said, pointing out that they need trace minerals, which she feeds her goats with hay. She researched corn and soy diets but ultimately decided that goats are meant to forage, which is why she eliminated grains from their diet and switched to all-foraged food.

"Keep them healthy and give them housing. I think it's a misconception that, 'Oh, a goat can live with whatever.' No, it can't. For instance, they don't like getting wet, they hate it, and they don't like the cold," Gray explained.

Starting a skincare business

Gray milks her goats twice a day with a machine, though the babies are bottle-fed. The more goats she acquired, the more milk they produced, which led her to start a skincare line of goat milk products. Goat milk is full of benefits for the skin, she said.

"Retinol is in goat milk," Gray said. "It's a vitamin A and it's naturally there. I don't have to make it unnaturally and then add it, because it's there."

Retinol provides antiaging effects and can help clear acne, according to Cleveland Clinic.

Gray started making soap in her kitchen with cake pans. She toyed with a recipe until she got the results she wanted, and eventually hired her assistant, Danelle, to help. The soap-making operation remains in the kitchen and she converted a spare bedroom into storage and packaging space, where pantry and bakery racks hold the finished products.

Scent offerings vary based on the supply and demand of the essential oils Gray uses in her products, which she said are all-natural and free of fake fragrances. She won't use fragrance oils, something she said is important to customers seeking healthier skin.

"Fragrances are a big irritant to people," Gray explained. "A lot of the detergents that are added to soap, those are big irritants to people, but people are becoming a lot more aware and asking a lot more questions."

Increased interest in goat milk skincare meant Gray's soap sales soon grew to include more products, such as lotions, eye creams and dog shampoo. She even uses her sunscreen on her goats.

"In the springtime, when their utters are full and they’re laying out in the pasture, they all get sunburned udders so I’ll use the sunscreen on them for that," she explained.

“It helps a lot of people and when I get people coming up, saying, 'My gosh, I never thought my skin could look like this,' that’s very rewarding to me. That makes me very happy," she said.

From marketing and bookkeeping to supply chain issues, managing a skincare business has had its challenges for Gray, who sells her products online and at local stores and farmer’s markets. But she loves helping people discover the benefits of goat’s milk — almost as much as she loves the goats themselves.

“They're my happy place. You know, they're peaceful," she said. "…I used to drive a school bus for a long time and that was probably a pretty stressful job, and I would come home and come out to my barn... Happy faces. Yes, peaceful, happy faces.”

That peaceful part is what’s kept her caring for and breeding goats for all these years. Though they may be misunderstood, being in the company of her goats makes all the sense in the world to Gray.

Stephanie Metzger-Lawrence is a digital producer for the engaged journalism team at Ideastream Public Media.