by Britt Aamodt
As a teenager, Gretchen Moritz worked on her grandparents’ 200-acre farm in Cambridge. That was where she learned to put up hay and wake early — early in teenager terms — to look after the animals.
She watched her grandmother fry up hamburgers and bacon and then collect the drippings.
The rural homemaker has prized animal fat for centuries. She has clarified it into lard and turned it into flaky piecrusts. In olden times, she kept jars of it to rub on the chests of sick family members.
Moritz’s grandmother turned the drippings into soap.
You could say soap making runs in the family. Since 2004, Moritz has been making her own soap and natural cosmetics out of the farm she shares with her husband and two daughters on the eastern edge of Elk River.
It’s not just a hobby, either. It’s a business named after her grandparents’ farm, Green Meadows Cosmetics.
She sells her soaps out of the Arts Alliance gift shop in downtown Elk River and at the Nowthen Farmer’s Market. Stores in Becker and St. Francis carry the Green Meadows tag and her cosmetics and lotions also sell online.
And it all started back in her grandmother’s kitchen when she was 15.
“My grandma had an old recipe book that was, gol’, I don’t even know how old, but it was ratty,” Moritz said.
The soap recipe was collected in the ancient tome, and the measurements were sketchy at best. More of this and less of that. The ingredients were simple: lye, water and animal fat drippings.
“Most of the time it was lye heavy. She used it as laundry soap, and it made the whites as white as can be,” Moritz said. She was enlisted to help with the soap making.
But then Moritz grew up, married her husband Theo and moved to the Elk River Area, where the Moritz family has been farming for generations. The couple has their own 11-acre farm and Theo runs beef cattle on his parents’ 3,000 acres.
Moritz has two daughters, 9 and 6, to get off to school weekdays, and for the first time in a long while, a baby calf to bottle feed.
The cow, named Miss Paws-a-Lot, “because she paws the ground a lot,” couldn’t feed the calf, so Moritz gets the job.
But when all that’s done for the morning, the cosmetics artisan descends to her basement studio to work up a batch of body butter (her best-selling item) or try out a new soap recipe.
Gallon jugs of oils — soybean, olive, corn, coconut and palm — weigh down the shelves. There are containers of fragrances and scents: cinnamon, lavender, tea tree oil, orange, bay leaf, cedar wood and geranium.
What makes Green Meadows products different from store brands is not simply that they’re handcrafted. They’re also made from natural ingredients. That’s the reason Moritz started her business in the first place.
“I figured out I was allergic to many ingredients found in commercial products,” Moritz said.
Products irritated her skin. Fragrances gave her migraines. And there were others like her out there, even among her friends. Those friends, and Moritz’s grandmother and mother, became her first customers.
“When I started selling cosmetics, a friend said, ‘You’ve got a great product, something I’ve never seen before,’” Moritz said. “She may never have seen it, but I’d seen it.”
Mineral cosmetics and natural cleansers were nothing new. But no one seemed to be doing it locally. Thus was born Green Meadows Cosmetics.
In the years since, Moritz has expanded her offerings. She offers eye shadows, blushes, foundations, lotions and a variety of soaps.
In addition to selling soaps at the Arts Alliance, Moritz offers workshops there on
homemade lip balm and melt-and-pour soaps.
The best part of her job, however, is when “someone is so excited and enthusiastic because they can’t use commercial products and now they have something they can safely use,” she said. “Those are memorable moments.”