Brenda Sullivan, creator of Farm to Bath in South Glastonbury, CT, strolls through her lavender garden on a drowsy April afternoon pondering ingredients for her next all-natural skin care product. She jokingly complains about the birds and animals that have eaten her plants but on a more serious note elaborates upon her future endeavors and plans of expansion. Sullivan’s soaps are in demand nationwide, a result of her tireless effort to steer her venture toward success. Her background is unique; becoming a professional soap manufacturer wasn’t always in the plans.
Co-owner of Thompson Street Farm, Sullivan has added to her repertoire improving daily as a soap-maker. Her second business Bath to Farm, www.farmtobath.com, carries several dozen soap and skin care products, each with a distinct touch. A California native and UConn graduate Sullivan is well-spoken and highly accustomed to adversity. The self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom” has confronted and overcome challenges less courageous individuals might cower from. Sullivan’s fortitude is obvious, her vision for the future extensive. Nonetheless, on this cloudy day, she is content with her present circumstance as she tends to the Rosemary plants inside her greenhouse.
As a senior in college Sullivan fell in love with and married her now long-time husband. Excited to become parents, the newly-wed couple was quickly blessed with a baby girl. Their introduction to parenthood strayed from the expected course. Their daughter, Katy, endured multiple strokes while in the womb and was born with a sensory disability stemming from severe brain damage. As an infant Katy suffered several hundred seizures a day, constantly crippled by light and sound. “Her whole world was very painful,” says the entrepreneur Sullivan. “She’s visually impaired and could not process anything. When you have a disability sometimes your sensory systems are on overload.”
Simple household sounds and scents tortured the young child. When the family dog would scratch its tags the resulting screech was unbearable for Katy’s ears. Brenda explains the trying times that would lay the ground work for Farm to Bath. “My husband loved to shower with Irish Spring Soap. He would go near Katy and she would lose it. Finally, after taking her to a behavioral therapist we found out scent was to blame. We came back from the appointment and stripped the entire house of anything with scent in it and started at ground zero.”
Identifying the problem did not immediately solve Katy’s dilemma. A variety of doctors and special education professionals were brought in to acclimate the young girl to everyday noises and odors. The process was far from effortless and tested the patience of all parties involved. “I had to ask one teacher not to come back because she dowsed herself in perfume,” says Sullivan. “She wouldn’t have to say a word, I would open the door and Katy would lose it. She’d cry through the whole session. She tried not wearing the perfume but it was so permeated in her clothes we had to find another option.”
Out of necessity, the Sullivan family elected to shift focus onto living organically. Brenda would buy soap from a small in-town store that used natural, traceable ingredients. When the business soon after closed its door no local alternatives remained. Out of options but full of purpose the young mother ventured into unfamiliar territory and began making her own soaps. Using materials from gardens on her property she delved into an experimentation phase. “I went on YouTube and watched every video, read every book. It took me a year to figure out how to do a cold-process old fashion soap. I didn’t want the quick melt-and-pour method. I wanted to be able to source everything locally because of Katy,” says Brenda. “I had to know the exact ingredients; they had to be pure. It was an absolute necessity. There were no substitutions, no room for error.”
Using the natural materials grown at Thompson Street Farm Brenda wholly asserted herself to the new undertaking. “The mission was to either grow it myself or find someone who I could trust and appreciated my ecological, organic background,” says Sullivan. Research and teamwork became integral parts of the process. Educated by local soap-makers Sullivan added different scents to her collection. All ingredients involved were thoroughly investigated before the production process began. Sullivan began attending classes at the Herbal Academy of New England in Boston, MA and subsequently developed her understandings of the soap making practice. “I wanted a science based clinical background; I knew I needed the academic pieces of it,” says Brenda. “I wanted to know why something infected [Katy’s] lungs, what the anatomy piece of it was. The herbal anatomy was incredible; their curriculum was exactly what I needed at the time. I didn’t want to make something because it smelled good.” Three years later Sullivan continues to study at the academy.
Word regarding Farm to Bath quickly spread around Hartford County. Using any platform available, most notably farmer’s markets, Sullivan put her product on display. Individuals with conditions similar to Katy’s began requesting custom soaps. Others with keen interest in the medicinal properties of the soap took notice. Today, while serving a predominantly local clientele, Farm to Bath ships its products nationwide from Maine to California. Sullivan understands and admires the perspective of her customers, “They are well-educated and understand I’m trying to offer an alternative. Nothing is wrong with the other soaps out there but I’m trying to offer something healthier that I can stand by. I grow everything myself and if I can’t, I source it locally.” Educating the customer on the ingredients and health benefits of her products is extremely important to Sullivan. Her soaps help to restore collagen, an essential protein found in human skin. “As we age we lose collagen in our skin,” Sullivan explains. “The oils matter; the herbs matter. I don’t use any preservatives or additives in the soap. For my daughter, I don’t do that.”
As the business grows more products have become available. Farm to Bath recently began selling a foot balm that has been popular with athletes. Ingredients such as mint and tea tree oil and mint are known for combatting bacteria and fungus. Vapor rub for those with allergies and colds are also available on Farm to Bath’s website. In the future Brenda plans to expand her enterprise but will be careful to maintain her local roots. “I don’t want to be too big because I’d lose control of the ingredients,” says Sullivan. “Eventually, I’d like to be able to afford a five-acre farm and have a small store on location. Focusing more on mail order is also important because that’s where the market is locally.”
Katy, homeschooled and aided by her mother, recently published a children’s book, Counting Starfish, available on Amazon. A testament to her own efforts and the family’s resolve, Katy has become increasingly desensitized.
For now, Brenda will continue to farm from the friendly confines of her own property. Beloved by neighbors for weeding their yards, Sullivan - in search of plantain, a key ingredient to her recipe - has earned the respect of her community. Determination and endurance have carried the family as they embrace and build upon their well-being. “Health and quality of life are the goal. I’m a pledge farmer from California who ended up in the Northeast,” says Sullivan. Perhaps it is no coincidence lavender thrives at Thompson Street Farm. “Lavender likes to be abused, we have very dry and sandy soil,” Brenda explains. “It doesn’t like water but enjoys full sun. Lavender does not want to be pampered.” Symbolically the family is much like lavender itself. No one has pampered the Sullivan family nor given them a free pass. All too familiar with hardship the family continues to thrive.