By Susan Spicer-McGarry
Photography by Rick Watson, Powell Valley News & Printing Company
For Joseph Bates, USMC, Master Sergeant, Retired, life has always been about a willingness to work harder predicated on sheer tenacity. “Nothing has ever come easy to me. So, I give everything 110%,” Joe says with a wide smile. “But then, I’ve always been stubborn.” Choosing to do the difficult thing seems to come natural to Joe. Enlisting in the U.S. Marines directly out of high school was a personal challenge. “I wanted to be the best,” recalls Joe. “I also knew that I’d have to work harder to make it.” Boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina is legendary. Pushed to the physical and mental breaking point – many recruits fail to graduate. Marine Corps training is considered by most graduates to be the challenge of a life-time. For Joe, the training readied him for a military career spanning twenty-one years, and prepared him for life’s most formidable challenges.
While home on leave in Florida, Joe met Shannon. Soft spoken, blue-eyed, and blond with laser-focus, “…she’s my perfect opposite,” he says with admiration, “I’m an extrovert. I’m literally all over the place.” In Shannon, Joe found a wife and future business partner. During his military service, Joe was deployed over-seas numerous times, serving off the coast of Somalia in support of humanitarian operations, in Kuwait after Desert Storm for Desert Stay and in support of Afghanistan, and again for the launch into Iraq in support of Iraqi Freedom. “I was an ordnance guy,” explains Joe. The work was hot, dusty and dangerous.
Redeployed, Joe served as the U.S. Embassy Detachment Commander in Kathmandu, Nepal. Treatment for a lump discovered on his neck while serving in Nepal would take him to Hawaii where he would face life’s most virulent challenge. “My initial diagnosis was head and neck cancer – stage three, boarder-line stage four,” Joe explains. “I underwent three month of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation.” Suffering the full force of side effects his weight plummeted from 220 lbs. to 150 lbs.
After six month of recuperation in Florida, Joe returned to active duty. Within a year, the cancer returned. Treatment this time included radical surgery leaving him with permanent limited mobility in his upper left side. Once again, Joe’s determination and perseverance led him to recovery. Nine months later, he returned to active duty in Iraq. “There was a lot wrong,” Joe says quietly. “But I always believed I could work my way through it.”
After completing his last tour of duty Joe retired from the Marines in 2012. Stressed-out and weary from the military and twice battling cancer – Joe and Shannon sought a fresh start in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia. “While in the Marines, I’d learned to make wine,” says Joe with a chuckle. “I thought I’d get a few goats – learn to make cheese to go with the wine and live a quiet, happy life.” A new direction brought new challenges. Having overcome larger obstacles, Joe was undaunted. “I didn’t have any experience in farming or goats. But we had a plan and time to follow our dreams,” explains Joe.
On a few hundred rented acres in the Appalachian Mountains Joe and Shannon established the Bates Family Farm. “We fenced three fields, built a small barn for 18 Nubian goats and moved into the old log cabin,” says Joe. “In 2013, our goats had babies.” Despite limited mobility from the surgery and without help, Joe persevered – milking the goats daily by hand. “My lower arms are strong,” explains Joe. “I just had to work my way around it.” Soon there were more babies and more goats and too much milk. Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from cancer, the goats were Joe’s therapy. “Working with Nubian goats is extremely therapeutic,” says Joe. Smart, docile, and gentle natured, Nubian goats are known for their ability to bond with human caretakers. “You can talk to the goats,” Joe says chuckling. “But if you think they are talking back there’s a problem.”
Utilizing Veteran’s benefits, Joe attended college while Shannon worked. One afternoon, while waiting for a cheese making class to begin Joe serendipitously watched a soap making demonstration. With an eye toward a use for the excess milk Shannon attempted soap making – with less than satisfactory results. Always a perfectionist, Shannon persisted. “She threw out more than $1000 in soap,” says Joe. “But she got it right.” According to Joe, his initial cheese making efforts were even worse. “It was absolute trash,” laughs Joe. “I remembered that I didn’t even like that kind of cheese.” Though later attempts proved successful the costs associated with building a grade B dairy were prohibitive.
“That week we took Shannon’s handmade goat milk soap to the local farmer’s market along with our produce and eggs. It sold out immediately,” explains Joe. The goat milk lotions they created met with the same resounding success. “Yet somehow, I still thought vegetables and eggs were my business,” says Joe with a bemused tone. Continuing his efforts to develop a farm business, Joe attended an entrepreneur class. At class, Joe took orders and delivered their soaps and lotions to other attendees. “We sold out every week at the farmer’s market,” explains Joe. “People really loved the product. To meet demands, I started taking orders at class.” After an instructor suggested that he rethink his business plan Joe worked out the numbers. “I’d never imagined goat milk soaps and lotions as a venue,” says Joe. “In 2014, I realized it was our accidental business.”
That winter, soaps and lotions placed in local stores continued to sell out almost immediately. Armed with 800 sample bottles, Joe attended his first trade show. “I wanted to put our product directly into people’s hands,” Joe says. His efforts resulted in wholesale orders from 20 more stores. “Reorders and new order kept coming it,” says Joe. To learn to manage their rapidly expanding business, Joe quickly took a small business class. “I became the head of marketing and sales, as if there was anyone else.” says Joe with a laugh. “Shannon, became the head of manufacturing. Because of her, our quality control is the absolute best,” says Joe. “She’s the only person that makes our product,” he says feigning insult. “I’m not allowed.” “I only have three business rules,” explains Joe. “Don’t be greedy. Don’t cut corners. Always give great customer service.”
Those simple rules make Joe and Shannon’s business as unique as their product. The growth of the business, has allowed Joe to employ a local veteran and two part-time workers in an area with nations highest unemployment rate. “My full-time guy is a Purple Heart Vet,” says Joe. “I’m able to pay him a modest wage and an end-of-year bonus based on company profit.” To keep the product profitable for wholesale customers, Joe keeps his profit margin down. “Most our retailers are Mom and Pop businesses. I want them to make money,” he explains. “The natural healing enzymes in fresh raw goat milk and the highest quality, 100% natural olive oil and shea butter make our product different.” Handmade in small batches to ensure freshness, Joe refuses to warehouse their product, even though it has a two year shelf life. “I have two week turn-around time from manufacturing to customer,” explains Joe. Always striving to make business better, Joe heads out weekly to deliver as many wholesale orders as possible. “It gives me a chance to see what’s on our customer’s minds,” explains Joe. Today, business at the Bates Family Farm continues to expand with products placed in more than 150 stores and online sales. “We’re moonstruck over the success,” says Joe.
No longer working from their kitchen, a larger house was converted to a production facility where bottles and jars are still filled by hand. The addition of creamy Body B’udder and the use of essential oils has expanded their line. From milking to manufacturing, Joe and Shannon continue to do everything by hand. “I’ve always believed in myself,” explains Joe. “I might not be the smartest, strongest or toughest. I’ve always had to work extra hard. But my family has always believed in me.” Having served his country in battle and conquered cancer twice seems to have created in Joe a keen awareness of life, one without room for fear of failure. “Sure, I have a bucket list,” says Joe beaming. “But, I have no what-ifs. I never look back. I have no regrets.”
Bates Family Farm goat’s milk Body B’udder, lotions, and soaps are available at Things A Drift and other fine boutiques.