For the second installment of our series on craftsmanship, we sat down with the founder of Little Homestead Farm, a Durham business that creates soaps, lotions and more from natural ingredients.
When Gina-Marie D’Meza had her first child, she spent time looking into some of the substances—baby powders, soaps, cleaning products—her daughter would be exposed to on a daily basis. What she found concerned her.
“Looking into all the commercial products, there were just so many chemicals and so many ingredients that I didn’t recognize or understand the effects of,” D’Meza said.
“I was like, ‘I think I could figure out how to do this on my own.’”
D’Meza decided to take measures to ensure she would not expose her daughter to any harmful chemicals. She started to research how to make her own soaps and other cleaning products.
The process involves mixing an oil with lye, which causes a reaction that creates soap.
Over the course of five years, D’Meza’s project transformed into Little Homestead Farm, a small business that produces and sells soaps, lotions, deodorants, lip balm and more.
“I started simple, making one or two soaps, kind of as a hobby. I started doing it for fun, and then people were like, ‘I want soap, can you make me soap?’,” D’Meza said.
In 2013, D’Meza started selling soaps and other products online, through Etsy, an e-commerce website.
Production takes place at the home of D’Meza and her husband, Alan.
“Seeing [the project] progress from basically just making soap on a whim to where it is now—and having people supporting us—is fantastic. I love it,” Alan D’Meza said.
“When you create something and you see it develop, it’s just very rewarding.”
Alan D’Meza has helped his wife with various parts of the process. He recently finished building a soaping studio for her in their garage.
Little Homestead Farm also sells soaps through local markets and businesses. The company has collaborated with local businesses, including Old Havana Sandwich Shop and Fullsteam Brewery, to make specialized soaps for them to sell.
The D’Mezas, who moved to Durham from New York 10 years ago, have watched Durham change since they arrived.
“When we came to Durham, there was nothing here,” Gina-Marie D’Meza said.
“I was like, ‘let’s drive downtown, let’s see the city,’ and we drove, and I said, ‘oh, man, all the stores are empty and there’s nothing here.’”
Since then, Durham’s local business scene has grown.
“After my Etsy was open, we started seeing stores pop up, breweries coming around. It was kind of like this local movement. There were a lot of businesses supporting local, small business, and I felt like we could really be a part of that,” she said.
The Makery at Mercury Studio, a retail collective in Durham that rents out space to local manufacturers and craftspeople to sell their wares, is one store from which Little Homestead Farm sells its soaps. The owners of the store first saw the company’s products on sale at the Durham Patchwork Mini-Market, and invited the D’Mezas to rent out space at The Makery for their soaps.
Lee Moore Crawford, an employee and “maker” at The Makery, stressed the importance of buying local products, such as those made by Little Homestead Farm.
“By investing your money in the community, it helps the community. And when you’re investing it locally, it helps local businesses,” Crawford said. Crawford also noted the environmental perspective.
“If we’re trying to find a greener community, it’s a really steep mountain, but I feel like buying local is a start,” Crawford said.
“I love using personal body products that are local; I know all the ingredients. I can put them down my drain and feel good about it.”
The D’Mezas have received support from the local community.
“We haven’t been told no for any of the places that we’ve reached out to. Everyone is like, ‘local is important, we want to support local,’ so we’re getting pretty good feedback from everybody,” Gina-Marie D’Meza said.
“It’s like an energy—everyone’s excited when you mention that you have a business. People are interested in it.”
Today, Little Homestead Farm has over 30 different types of soaps to offer, in addition to a variety of other products.
Gina-Marie D’Meza enjoys the creative aspect of soaping.
“I enjoy the process; I have three kids, so it gives me a little bit of quiet time sometimes. I enjoy making and coming up with new ideas, running them past my husband,” she said. “I should probably stop, but every time I think of a new idea I add it on. I make a lot of stuff that I just do for us, that I don’t sell.”
Alan D’Meza uses his wife’s products frequently. He advocates for her traditional method of crafting soaps.
“Commercially made soaps are like detergent or antibacterial liquid—it’s not really soap. It’s gone away from using natural products,” Alan D’Meza said.
“We’re exposed to about 20,000 chemicals daily, so we mitigate that by using natural ingredients (in our soaps). Ultimately, it’s going to improve your quality of life, in my opinion.”
Gina-Marie D’Meza also emphasized that Little Homestead Farm’s soaps do not make use of oils with genetically modified organic material in them.
She said she did not foresee the beginning of a business when she first started developing her craft, but is willing to expand.
“I never did it with the end picture being to become rich or anything. I did it on accident,” D’Meza said.
“I would love to expand, have more wholesale deals, and I’d like to keep finding people who are interested in the local movement.”
Regardless of Little Homestead Farm’s future, the D’Mezas’ children get to enjoy the perks of soaping.
“They like touching and smelling and getting into whatever they can get into. They give me their opinions on the smell when I start cooking and the house starts to smell,” Gina-Marie D’Meza said.
“They’re my toughest critics, I think.”