When Heather Long’s uncle died last September at age 42, she decided to make a change.
“He was young, and it really opened my eyes to the fact that life is short,” she said. “You’ve got to do what you love and what motivates you in the morning.”
For Long, that meant leaving a 15-year career managing properties for real estate giant Thalhimer.
“I loved doing what I did, but I loved my house and my farm a little bit more,” she said. “It was getting to the point where it was harder and harder to leave here in the mornings.”
The commute from her Hanover County homestead to downtown Richmond was draining, Long said. And besides — the kids needed her at home.
Patches, Ellie, Honey, Hazel and Mabel and even Mama Dot — no longer a kid — all are thriving. So are her human kids: a stepson, daughter and the 11-year-old son she and her husband, George “B.J.” Long, share.
“I feel whole, like I’m true to myself, I’m true to my family, I do what I love and I’m surrounded by some pretty cool stuff,” she said from her sunroom-turned-storage area for the fruits of Long’s latest endeavor: the Naked Goat Soap Co.
Traces of honeysuckle, pear, sandalwood and a dozen other wholesome smells emanate from a wire rack in the room off Long’s kitchen, where bar stools made of converted tractor seats belly up to wide counters.
It is the heart of Long’s home and a hive of activity when she is preparing bulk batches of goat’s milk soaps, bath soaks, creamers and salves. She began experimenting with the products as a project last fall.
“I just said I thought I’d like to try my hand at it to see if I like it,” she said. “In my husband’s true fashion of going overboard, he came home with three Alpine goats.”
Long then started making a few items for friends and family members. As word spread, requests for more soap in different varieties began trickling in.
“It just kind of happened organically,” Long said of the company, which has since expanded to include a men’s product line and branded T-shirts. “I’m up to more than 600 likes on Facebook, and I don’t even know how it happened. I don’t know 600 people.”
It’s not the Longs’ first or only foray into entrepreneurship. The couple also operate Legacy Ironworks, a metal fabrication company. Before soap making, they repurposed reclaimed wood and other items to make rustic furniture and other home goods.
“That’s gotten so big and overpopulated — it kind of drives me wonkers,” she said.
And the livestock boom at the couple’s property on Hanover Courthouse Road is befitting Piney Branch Farm, which the Longs’ family founded in 1928.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Heather Long’s daughter, Kira, said of the fledgling business. “The goats are cute, but they eat everything.”
An incoming freshman at Longwood University, Kira has helped her mother from time to time over her senior year at Hanover High School, she said, as does Hunter, 11.
“We’re happy for her,” Kira said, “and it makes her happy.”
Heather grew up in the West End and originally went to school to become a drug counselor. Having Kira at age 19 changed everything, she said.
“I shifted gears pretty quickly,” Long said. “My family is wonderful and would have helped me in any way I asked, but I wanted to be self-reliant.”
She got into property management then so she could live rent-free, she said, and the move ultimately led her to become the head of off-campus housing for Thalhimer with a portfolio of 500 properties.
“Leaving work was difficult because I built strong friendships there,” Long said. “It was an emotional departure, but it was time.”
Her husband, whom she met at 23, pushed her to make the move and, at age 36, Long said she felt a sense of arrival.
“There’s something almost revolutionary feeling about this return to a self-sustaining way of life,” she said. “And it’s not revolutionary — it’s what our ancestors have done forever. I feel like we’re coming full circle to a place we were never meant to leave.”
She said it’s a common sentiment among the emerging cottage industry of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs she refers to as “makers.”
“I think we’ve all kind of had that pivotal moment in our lives where we decided that we needed to do what makes us happy,” Long said. “I love listening to other people’s origin stories; if I listen hard, I can usually find a piece of myself in them.”
Her days still start early and involve plenty of hard work. There are children and dogs and goats and chickens and crops to mind and a cow that needs attention. She squeezes in soap making and fills orders when she’s not helping George with contracts and billing paperwork.
But for the first time since moving to Hanover six years ago, Long said she feels like she’s beginning to make a name for herself beyond her affiliations with a deep-rooted county family.
“I grew up in the West End so until recently, I’ve either been known as B.J.’s wife or Bubba’s daughter-in-law,” she said. “Now, I kind of have a name, and it’s usually the Naked Goat Soap Co. lady, but sometimes they remember Heather.”