Down and dirty with Black Rock Mud
For Shelly Egbert and Summer Powelson, creating a sustainable business requires getting dirty. Egbert and Powelson started Black Rock Mud Company, a company that makes a cosmetic cream created from the mud produced by geothermal springs in the Black Rock Desert.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” she says. “I just have ideas that I want to do something about. … People are worried about the economy and looking for jobs and we’re saying, ‘Look, we’ve got mud, let’s be inventive and be creative.’ This has been a dream of mine for about 12 years.” Egbert is also the director of nonprofit organization House Calls, a support system for ailing senior citizens.
Black Rock Mud Company is a Gerlach-based family operation—Egbert and Powelson each have four children, ranging from age 2 to 20, who are home schooled and help with the business as part of their education. Egbert also has three children who attend college.
The mud is harvested on 144 acres bought by Egbert’s father 12 years ago. A hunter green color, it has a creamy consistency that dries quickly on skin, and is essentially odorless. The mud is classified as an illite clay, commonly used in alternative healing because it creates a pulling sensation, stimulating the blood under skin.
“When you see that coming out of the ground it’s just gorgeous, so it was very intriguing,” Egbert says of her first impressions of the substance. “We used to put it all over our bodies and our faces. It just felt wonderful. So for a long time I said, ‘We need to put this in a jar.’”
Egbert and Powelson collect, process and jar the mud themselves. The mud is strained to remove excess moisture and organic material but is packaged as is to retain its natural properties. The owners must work around the natural patterns of the ecosystem, so the mud is only harvested twice a year.
“The hard part is that this is all geothermal activity,” says Egbert. “It’s up to Mother Nature. Sometimes the springs throw the mud out, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they’re dry. So for 12 years I watched it constantly change, and eventually came up with a way to make it available based on harvests.”
While the substance itself is organic, making the company entirely green was the top priority. Black Rock Mud’s facility is all powered by wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal energy. Egbert and Powelson also wanted every piece of the jars, lids, and box packaging to be sustainable.
“We said we wanted it to be green, organic, recyclable, and the big one for me was made in the U.S.,” says Egbert. “That was the hardest for us. We spent two years trying to get it in a package.”
The team eventually found the resources they were seeking, but acknowledge that their overhead costs for packaging is much more expensive “than if we had just gone with materials made in China, but we weren’t going to do that,” says Egbert. Their efforts won them an international green packaging design award.
The small company has received national press, including a front page story in the Wall Street Journal last month. Egbert says they were even offered a reality television show deal, which they turned down.
“We’re just mud farmers from Nevada,” she says, laughing. “Well, we prefer ‘mud whisperers.’ We’re just using what nature has gifted to us.”