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Goat milk soap business puts stewardship at forefront

RICE LAKE — The business between Rice Lake and Cumberland in northwest Wisconsin might be named “Barnyard Blessing,” but Don and Susie Stiver know the goats being raised on their farm are a little more complicated than that.

But while goats, who among other traits are known escape artists, and the business the couple runs can prove to be a lot of hard work, “we enjoy it,” Susie said.

The Stivers moved from California, where they had a small ranch where they raised meat goats and sheep, to Wisconsin in 2005. They wanted to utilize the farm they moved to but discovered that there wasn’t the call for goat meat in Wisconsin that there had been in California.

Their solution: goat milk soap.

A friend from California had made goat milk soap, so the concept wasn’t a foreign idea, but the endeavor still took a lot of research and trial and error to begin, with the business starting out very small and very slowly.

What started out as four varieties has now turned into 22 kinds of bar soap, seven different lotions and four varieties of liquid soap.

Outside of the goat milk industry, the Stivers also make all-natural laundry detergent, and Don crafts birdhouses, each one unique in its own right, although styles may be repeated. Last year, the Stivers made over three tons of laundry soap, and over the last three-plus decades, Don said he has made thousands of birdhouses, some of which can be spotted on their farm.

As for their goat milk products, the Stivers say that there are several qualities to them that make them more unique.

Barnyard Blessing Goat Milk Soap primarily uses therapeutic-grade essential oils as opposed to fragrances (except for rose, due to its higher cost); replaces all water in the soap with goat milk, for a total of 1 to 1¼ ounces of milk per soap bar; and follows the philosophy of not putting anything in that doesn’t need to be there.

Don described both the soap and lotion as “very pure.”

Goat milk soap is soothing, nourishing and moisturizing for the skin, Susie said, crediting the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in goat milk and the therapeutic effects of essential oils for the quality of their product.

The farm has seven does, a buck, 11 goat kids and “pasture pals” for their buck, who is kept separated from the females for most of the year. The Stivers plan to keep some of the baby does to replace ones who will be retiring in the next couple of years. The other kids will be sold.

The Stivers’ goats typically kid in March. An insistent buck this season means that next year’s babies will likely arrive in February, Susie said.

The goat kids are allowed to nurse for eight weeks, which allows them to bond with their mother and become more “well-adjusted” to go to a new home later, Susie said.

Don said allowing the kids to be with their mothers for that amount of time serves another useful purpose, too: when the Stivers take their annual spring craft show road trip, they only have to hire someone to feed the goats, not milk them, too.

The goats are milked once a day during milking season and only just as much as needed to provide the Stivers with enough milk — three freezers full — to make soap for a year to a year and half. The goats are also only bred once a year, as the Stivers believe a “season of rest” is important for the goats’ well-being, Susie said.

While the Stivers’ goats do ultimately serve the purpose of providing milk for the soap, the Stivers also see themselves as stewards of their animals, they said.

“It’s important to us to take care of what we’ve been entrusted with,” Susie said.

The couple is also active in the community, whether it is working with the Cumberland FFA, going into classrooms to talk about their goats or allowing people to bring their children out to the farm to see what it’s like.

Like it has for most people, the pandemic has brought challenges for the Stivers and their business this year. Normally, the couple sells their goods at 40 craft fairs, festivals and junk/vintage upcycle shows in several states during the year. This year, with so many cancellations happening, they’ve only had five.

Still, the shows they have been able to go to this year have gone fairly well overall, with the Stivers saying that only one wasn’t very good.

They’re thankful for the customers who have come out to the shows, sometimes driving long distances to do so, because if it weren’t for them, “it would be much harder than it already has been,” Susie said.

Helping to compensate for the lack of shows this year is increased online ordering through their website, www.barnyardblessing.com. They ship their products all over the country, they said. The Stivers also welcome customers to give them a call at 715-822-6301 to set up an appointment to stop by the farm to pick up an order or browse their selection.

While the pandemic was an unexpected challenge, raising goats and producing soap has always had a learning curve that the Stivers have had to and continue to adjust to over the years.

Since starting their business, the Stivers have found themselves doing a lot of education about goat milk, something people tend to be less aware of than cow’s milk, Susie said.

The awareness has grown somewhat in the state, though, particularly as goats have become more popular in Amish communities. Sometime years in the future, Don said, they foresee themselves as potentially turning to Amish farmers to buy the goat milk they’d need for their products in bulk and eventually get out of raising goats themselves.

Finding a vet to help care for their animals was something else more difficult to do for their goats. Goats aren’t exactly small animals or large animals, the two categories veterinarians are often classified as, Susie said.

Eventually the Stivers found a vet in Hayward, a town about an hour northeast of the farm, who is able to work with the goats. The Stivers have also done a lot of research to help them do their own doctoring when necessary.

But whatever challenges their business and goats might bring, the couple is dedicated to taking care of their animals and using them responsibly, Susie said.

“We consider this to be a gift to be able to do this business,” Susie said.

Got any good news?

There’s plenty of good news in the world even though lately it seems a little harder to find. Roughly 90% of what Americans see in the media is “bad news.” After all, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and every writer knows: no trouble, no story.

A fight or flight response in humans means all of us have a negative bias, which psychologists say explains our predilection for hearing and remembering bad news. Neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” Roadside accident? You can’t not look.

Humans have evolved to be aware of threats, including disturbing headlines or upsetting 24/7 TV news crawlers. Critics recently dubbed the act of constantly consuming bad news “doom scroll.”

Like many people, I crave good news, especially now.

Actor and writer John Krasinski — best known as Jim from “The Office” — pitched his idea about a news show based entirely on positive stories long before safer-at-home orders gave us reason to seek out laughing baby videos. Since no studio bit on his idea, he filmed eight episodes of “Some Good News” in his Massachusetts home and shared it on YouTube for free this past March through May. The show is part citizen journalism, part “Saturday Night Live” weekend update. His children painted the “SGN” sign hanging behind him.

Celebrity guests like Brad Pitt reported on the weather, but much more interesting were the real people Krasinski featured in his weekly roundup: dancing day care workers, a toddler singing “Don’t Worry About a Thing,” a 99-year-old WWII veteran who raised over $31 million for health care workers by doing laps around his garden.

Krasinski recently sold his show to ViacomCBS. One person on boston.com commented, “You know the end is near when there is a bidding war on good news.”

The way I see it, “Some Good News” will soon have a much larger audience, and Krasinski’s message endures: “Hope will not be cancelled, and no matter how hard things get: there’s always good in the world.”

In this spirit, here are two Chippewa Valley stories that offer an antidote to doom scroll.

Pen pals for isolated seniorsPhotographs of residents at Our House Senior Living in Chippewa Falls were featured on Facebook in a program to seek out volunteer letter writers. Residents held up a whiteboard with their names, former professions and interests — a little like a senior dating website but the meet-up is only via U.S. mail. Baker Sharon is interested in fishing, jokes and current events. Reverend Bob loves religion and puzzles. Teacher Kathy is into travelling and gardening.

Maya Will, assistant director of the Memory Care building, has been happily overwhelmed with the response. Her friend since childhood works for TMJ4 News in Milwaukee and ran a segment on the pen pals program. Since then, letters and gifts for residents have arrived from as far away as Texas and California. One teacher in Thailand has promised that her students will write. Plenty of people in the Chippewa Valley stepped up, too.

Though no last names appeared in the Facebook post, Karen Schulz LaGesse recognized Beatrice — who likes dogs and bird watching. Many years ago Karen and Bea lived a few blocks from each other in Chippewa Falls. Both loved their Shih Tzus, often the source of their impromptu conversations when Bea walked her dog past Karen’s childhood home.

Karen lives in Bloomer now and works as a caregiver for the elderly. In her first letter to Bea she wrote details she hoped would jog her old neighbor’s memory, “I’m the girl with the dog Dexter.”

Maya estimates that so far around 500 pieces of mail have arrived for the 20 residents. Not quite the avalanche of letters Kris Kringle received in “Miracle on 34th Street” but still a substantial stack.

Everyone is hopeful the notes will continue, even after the pandemic is over and residents can have more visitors. For sure, Karen Schulz LaGesse will keep her letters coming.

Bag of money returnedInvestment banker Ryan transferred jobs from San Francisco to Minneapolis this spring. Mid-July, a friend helped him move across town, and Ryan’s backpack fell off the truck somewhere on busy France Avenue. Soon afterward Chippewa Falls couple Frank Nordstrom and Karen Sabaska, part of a road construction crew in the area, were driving down the thoroughfare. Karen spotted the bag and told her husband to stop. She intended to simply toss it to the side of the road so other vehicles didn’t have to swerve around it. Once she realized this was an expensive Yeti brand, she decided to keep the bag and find the owner. Back at the jobsite, she found Ryan’s passport, laptop, Bose headphones and envelopes of cash inside. Fortunately, there was also a magazine with his full name and address, so Karen and Frank drove by. No one was home.

That afternoon Karen called me. “I found a bag of money.” I thought she was teasing. I am perpetually looking for a cash discovery in the walls of my old house or in Lake Hallie or on the side of the road. She told me every detail except the punchline.

“How much?” I asked

“Guess,” she said.

“Twenty big ones,” I said.

“Twenty dollars shy of $10,000.”

I squealed. I didn’t have to ask what came next. I’ve known Karen since we were 6 years old. She searched the internet for Ryan and called him.

A day later he called back. “Everything is in the bag,” Frank told him.

“Everything?” a surprised Ryan asked.

The questions on everyone’s mind: 1) why did he have that much cash in a backpack? and 2) why wasn’t it securely inside a vehicle? — have never been answered. When Ryan met to retrieve his stuff, he told Karen, “There are good people in the world.” Karen may not have gotten to keep her bag of money, but she did get a reward check for $2,000 — perhaps much more satisfying.

Ryan didn’t want his last name used. Six weeks after reclaiming his backpack he wrote to me, “Everything they say about the honesty and integrity of Midwesterners is true.”

That’s not really news to most of us.

Wild rice

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Contaminants bring do not eat advisory
  • Updated

Firefighting foam chemicals have been detected in deer in northeast Wisconsin, prompting state officials to warn hunters to not eat livers from deer harvested in the Marinette and Peshtigo area.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a do not eat advisory Sept. 15 for the liver from deer harvested in close proximity to source of PFAS-contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water. The do not eat advisory accompanied a Sept. 15 DNR report detailing findings of PFAS in the liver of deer harvested and analyzed from the JCI/Tyco Fire Technology Center in Marinette.

Following this announcement, the DNR and Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a do not eat advisory for the liver from deer harvested within 5 miles of the JCI/Tyco Fire Technology Center. This includes areas of Marinette, Peshtigo and surrounding communities. The FTC is located at 2700 Industrial Parkway, Marinette.

“We want to be clear that people should feel comfortable eating venison from deer they’ve harvested near this area,” said Tami Ryan, DNR wildlife health section chief. “We just advise they do not consume the liver.”

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are man-made chemicals used in industrial processes and manufactured products. PFAS don’t break down easily and can remain for a long time in the environment where people can be exposed to them. PFAS can accumulate in the human body slowly over time through repeat exposure. High levels of PFAS in the body are harmful to human health, especially to the health of pregnant women.

According to the DNR, two specific PFAS, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), are the most studied PFAS chemicals. Current studies of PFOS and PFOA suggest that exposures at high levels may increase cholesterol levels, increase the risk of thyroid disease, decrease female fertility and increase the risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women. EPA research suggests that some PFAS may have the potential to cause cancer, but studies linking the two have not been consistent.

Due to high interest from the community, the DNR conducted a study on PFAS levels in deer from the JCI/Tyco Fire Technology Center in Marinette. In February, 20 deer were harvested and tested for PFAS levels in muscle (venison), heart and liver tissues.

As a control, 12 muscle samples were collected from deer in Price County that were submitted for CWD testing.

From the 20 samples, one deer had detectable levels of PFAS, specifically PFOS, in the muscle, but the concentration was below base consumption guidelines. No PFAS was detected in the deer muscle samples that were collected from Price County. From heart samples, PFAS was detected in two deer. It was, again PFAS and levels in these two heart samples were very low.

For those who eat venison from deer harvested within the five-mile advisory area, the muscle and heart of white-tailed deer are not likely to result in significant PFAS exposure, according to the DNR’s findings. Because levels were low, no PFAS consumption advisory for heart or muscle is necessary for deer harvested from the area, DNR Fish and Wildlife Toxicologist Sean Strom said during an online press conference Sept. 15.

However, significant PFAS levels were found in deer liver tissues. The liver filters chemicals from the blood, and some chemicals, like PFAS, can accumulate in the liver over time. These findings suggest that eating liver from deer in this area is likely to result in significant PFAS exposure. The Wisconsin DHS and DNR recommend people not eat liver harvested from deer within the advisory area. Further investigation of PFAS in deer from other locations is under consideration.

All 20 liver samples had detectable levels of PFAS, and the range was from about 4 parts per billion, up to 92 parts per billion.

“It’s important to remember that the liver functions to filter contaminants from the bloodstream, so higher levels of PFAS in the liver was not unexpected,” Strom said. “Essentially the liver is doing its job and filtering these things out of bloodstream.”

Consumption restrictions begin when PFAS concentrations are above 10 parts per billion, and 11 of the 20 liver samples had PFAS levels exceeding this 10 parts per billion threshold, he said.

“And considering the fact that the liver can accumulate other contaminants in addition to PFAS, we are recommending that hunters do not eat liver from deer harvested from this area,” Strom said.

Christine Haag, director of the DNR’s Reclamation and Remediation program, which oversees sites with hazardous-substance discharges or environmental pollution, said her program is currently aware of more than 40 locations around the state where there are or there have been PFAS discharges to the environment where investigations or cleanups are occurring.

Ryan, the chief of the DNR wildlife health program, said the DNR is considering doing an additional evaluation of deer liver from this upcoming gun-deer season and looking at getting an additional 20 deer geographically distributed across the state as a way to compare those PFAS values to the values from this study area.

“I think part of what we’ll have an idea of, once we get results from deer across the state, is if this was a local result, or if it’s in fact similar in in deer from other parts of the state,” Strom said.

Strom said hunters who had previously harvested a deer in the study area and may still have deer liver in their freezer should use their best judgment before consuming that liver.

“We don’t know what exposures are in the past but, going forward limiting consumption of PFAS is one of the ways you can limit your overall level of PFAS in your blood,” Haag added.

Strom said Michigan has conducted similar PFAS testing on about 150 deer, and of those tested they have only had one that had PFAS levels in muscle that resulted in a consumption advisory.

Strom said continued exposure to PFAS will influence levels that are accumulating in other organs, but he couldn’t say with any certainty whether it would eventually accumulate in the muscle or hearts of deer in the sample area.

“Based on conversations with colleagues in Michigan,” he said Sept. 16 during a virtual public hearing, “the thought is the deer with high levels in the venison is a outlier.”

For more information, visit https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Contaminants/Marinette.html.