It’s not exactly making lemonade from lemons but it’s close.
When Jane Atkinson of Running Reindeer Ranch ended up with extra reindeer milk, she considered making ice cream, cheese or yogurt but nixed those ideas. “I do not need another project,” the full-time nurse said.
Her husband Doug Toelle started adding the milk to his coffee, but Atkinson was alarmed at the 20 percent milk fat he was consuming.
So off she went to the Tanana Valley Farmers Market to find soap makers. Candace Smith of Boreal Winds agreed to try making reindeer milk soap. Just in time for the holiday season, the small bars packaged in shimmery drawstring bags are selling like hotcakes for $10 each.
“Candace did whatever soap makers do and brought me soap,” Atkinson said. Since she is not the crafty type, she was thrilled to find someone willing to experiment. Customers are buying directly from Atkinson and online. Orders are coming in from across the country, including guests who have visited the ranch, other reindeer owners and soap aficionados.
“It’s pricey but it’s unique,” Atkinson said. “I don’t know that there will be any more.”
One customer wrote, “I got my soap and wanted to give you feedback right away. It is fabulous! I immediately went in and washed my hands and it felt so creamy…my dry hands were feeling smoother and softer. Willow’s Gift is more like Willow’s Treasure.”
Willow is the reindeer who provided the milk. Atkinson explained that Willow is not a very good mother and didn’t want to nurse her calf. To help relieve the engorged udder, Atkinson had to milk the deer.
“To my knowledge this is the only reindeer milk soap in the world,” she said. “You wouldn’t normally milk a reindeer and if you are an indigenous person doing that you are going to drink it or make cheese.”
Atkinson laughed, saying no one in their right mind would go to the trouble she went through with Willow. She got into the reindeer business because her daughter wanted a horse. When she was denied that, she asked for a goat or a sheep. “Absolutely not,” Atkinson answered. But driving past the Fairbanks Experiment Farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the answer became clear: reindeer.
The family purchased two deer in 2007 from a farmer in Palmer. The herd is now at seven. Atkinson offers “walks with the reindeer” by appointment to tourists and locals. “It’s a magical thing to walk with reindeer,” she said. No matter the weather, Atkinson halters up the lead reindeer, Olive, and trundles through the woods in the Goldstream Valley, explaining life in Alaska to her guests, as the other reindeer follow along.
“It’s really fun and I love it,” she said. “My husband and I are world travelers and we love meeting other travelers. People enjoy having a personal home experience.”
While other Alaskans are raising reindeer for meat, Atkinson said, “These reindeer are lucky to be born in a vegetarian household.
“This whole business has been such a serendipitous, organic thing,” Atkinson said. Her goals are to learn more about reindeer diet and nutrition and train her animals to pull a sled.
“We love sharing our reindeer.”
This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.