“It’s really an overgrown 4-H project,” said Jennifer Bice, owner of Redwood Hill Farm, a 20-acre goat farm in Sebastopol. Along with nine of her other producers, this “project” supplies goat cheese and yogurt to 97 percent of natural stores across the U.S. — the next highest is 85 percent — and produces the No. 1-selling plain goat yogurt in the nation.
It was her childhood love of goats that turned a modest family farm into the largest producer of goat milk products in the U.S. Sitting at a picnic table in her back yard, watching the mild-mannered grazers, Bice is a modest and soft-spoken businesswoman who would rather be tending goats than sitting behind a computer, which is how she now spends most of her day.
The oldest of 10 children, Bice and her late husband, Steve Schack, took over the farm in 1978, when goat cheese was not on the culinary radar like it is today. In fact, the quality and taste of some of what was on the market then left much to be desired.
“There are so many stories of how bad it was,” Bice said. “I can’t believe how it used to be. We would have schools tour the farm, and the baby goats are fabulous, but before a child could even take a sample of cheese the mother would take it away saying ‘oh no, he won’t like it.’”
The turning point came in the 1980s, when local restaurant chefs started incorporating goat cheese into their menus. The farm also started getting calls from stores that wanted their product, followed by “love letters” that came in from people who were lactose intolerant, or otherwise couldn’t eat dairy products.
“People that hadn’t had cheese on a bagel in 10 years called us crying,” Bice said. “It’s been a real turnaround for people who have to have it for a milk allergy or milk intolerance, and people who want it just because it tastes great.”
Bice also credits business growth to the millennials, who grew up eating and loving goat cheese and are curious about other goat milk products, and are in turn feeding them to their children now. On farm tours these days, “kids come running up and say, ‘oh my mom buys your yogurt.’”
Bice’s fondness for the goats clearly plays a role in the farm’s success. All 300 of them have a name, they get maternity leave, and “retire” after about age 10. Redwood Hill was the first goat farm in the nation to be Certified Humane by Humane Farm Animal Care, which is considered the gold standard in third-party certification for humane animal treatment.
Bice is also a champion goat breeder, and the goats are also valued for their stock. Her approach to animal husbandry is natural and the farm’s dairy goats are raised “free range.” The herd is exhibited at major shows, holding the title of National Champions in four of the six breeds. In 2012, Bice was named Premier Breeder by the American Dairy Goat Association at its national show. The farm also sells 50 – 80 goats a year, even internationally, and they are valued at $600 to $2,000 each. Selling the breeding stock supplements the business – semen is even frozen and sold.
“You kind of have to do it all,” Bice said.