Sebastopol's Redwood Hill Farm rides artisan dairy wave with goat products

“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.

The goat milk is processed at Redwood Hill’s nearby creamery, which is certified organic. The farm is sustainable and many of their practices are in accordance with organic standards, however, Redwood Hill products are not labeled organic. The glitch is due to the farm being unable to source an appropriate amount of organic feed.

The milk is not standardized or homogenized, and products are free of sugar, artificial coloring, preservatives, or powdered milk.

No pesticides or herbicides are used on the farm, vegetable gardens, or the fruit orchard.

The farm also operates 100 percent on solar power. The creamery has a solar system that spams nearly two acres with more than 2,500 panels, and operates at about 85 percent solar.

In 2010, Bice diversified the business with the first lactose free cow dairy yogurts, kefirs and sour cream to become available nationwide under a new brand name – Green Valley Organics. According to sales data, Green Valley Organics grew at 27 percent last year, and plain kefir quart is number six in sales in the nation in natural foods stores.

“What we’re really happy about is that after being on the market for 30 years it’s still growing, at 10 percent a year. And I really think that’s because of this whole new customer base, the millennials who are more adventurous in their eating,” Bice said.

On average, the farm’s goat yogurt sales have increased by 23 percent, and goat milk kefir sales over the last five years have grown by 97 percent on average.

To keep up with the growth, Bice gradually brought onboard nine other family farms, which are all also Certified Humane. These producers are in the business because they love the animals and the way of life, and are not necessarily interested in creating products, and the marketing and producing side of business, she said.

“They are like we were in the beginning. In the beginning, making products, marketing, and distribution is really hard,” Bice said.

Initially, when Redwood Hill really started taking off, supply and demand was almost impossible to balance, Bice said. Especially in winter when the farms are low on milk, due to some of the goats being on maternity leave, whereas in the summer there is a surplus of milk, which is when the cheese is made.

Now that the business is growing at a steadier rate, distribution needs are easier to project. Bice meets with distributors then talks to the producers about how much they are going to produce each month. If a producer wants to expand, they are given a certain percentage increase.

“It’s definitely a strategy and balancing act. We had one producer go out of business, thankfully we had other producers that wanted to increase and it all worked out. Even with that we still have a shortage for two months because the goats are on maternity leave.”

And that shortage leaves vocal customers wanting.

“We used to get people calling and screaming at us ‘the dairy buyer said you’re going out of business’ or ‘my wife has cancer and this is the only thing she can eat’,” Bice said.

During those two months when store shelves are not as full of their product, Bice and her team came created signs for stores to put out noting the goats are on maternity leave. They also put “goats are on maternity leave” on the quart lid during those months. Between the lids and social media, word gets out and people are understanding and appreciative that the goats are so well taken care of.

The goal for the farm now is to become certified organic. Bice is lobbying to change the rule for goats, which are grazers, not ruminants like cows who get all their nutrition from eating grass.

For Bice, sustainability has always gone beyond solar panels and energy use. They also have a water conservation system and a robust recycling program. While the plastic in the containers has been reduced over the years and the plastic lids have been replaced with a foil seal, Bice would like to get rid of plastic altogether.

“For us it’s just our moral ethics and way of being so we’ve kind of incorporated it all along.”

But not being labeled certified organic is not hurting sales.

“It’s a family run operation as opposed a large industrial one, and I think that is some of the appeal,” Bice said,

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