From 4-H to For Profit
Jennifer Lynn Bice never set out to be an award-winning cheesemaker. “I’m really into the goats,” she remarks, while petting the kids racing around her. “That’s why I have my business.” Her business, Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, California, is a celebrated goat dairy and creamery in operation for more than 35 years.
Bice’s love of goats began when she was nine. Her parents had moved to Sebastopol from Los Angeles as part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. “They wanted to grow their own food and have animals,” explains Bice. In the process Bice started showing goats through 4-H. “We had a goat herd really quickly,” says Bice, “because all of us kids [she’s the eldest of nine siblings] got goats. They learn tricks like dogs, and you can dress them up and play with them.”
More than Milk
Her father started bottling the goats’ milk, and Bice and her mother would deliver the glass bottles to local health food stores. By 1978 Bice and her late husband, Stephen Shack (whom she met on the goat show circuit in the early ’70s), had taken over her parents’ part-time goat dairy business. Their goal was to turn it into a thriving full time business. “All I wanted to do was raise goats, but there was nowhere for us to sell the milk,” Bice explains. “Making product was the way to create a real, for profit business.” That’s when Redwood Hill Farm, as it exists today, was born.
That hoped-for business now has 55 employees, producing and shipping goat’s milk yogurt and kefir around the country, as well as over a dozen goat’s milk cheeses that are sold exclusively in the western United States. Redwood Hill has also partnered with local cow dairies to create Green Valley Organics, a lactose-free creamery. Bice takes great pleasure in seeing the expansion of interest in goat’s milk products and cheeses and the new vitality in American artisan cheesemaking. “A rising tide raises all boats,” she says, smiling.
The growing production of fine cheese in the United States is also what led her to decide to pull back on Redwood Hill Farm’s cheese distribution to points east. “I used to feel guilty about the fuel needed to maintain such a wide distribution,” she explains. “That’s why we stopped distributing cheese on the East Coast. There is a lot of great chèvre available there locally. We don’t need to be shipping ours so far.”
Goat’s milk yogurt and kefir are still distributed nationally, partly because they aren’t as widely available in many markets. They also require less trained handling, so Bice doesn’t worry about consumers getting an under- or overripe version and being turned off by her products. “The spread of interest in cheese means people who don’t know a lot about cheese are trying [new ones],” Bice says. “It used to be that if someone didn’t know what a Camembert was supposed to be like, they weren’t buying it. Now people may buy a cheese and not know that if it smells like ammonia, that means it’s not good; they’ll think that’s what that cheese is.” That shift has made her a bit more particular about where and when her cheeses are being sold. It’s made her aware of how carefully she wants her cheeses handled. The fact that a smaller distribution area matches with her environmental ideals and sustainability mission is a net good.
When her husband died in 1999, Bice immersed herself in the business. “People kept asking me if I was going to sell the farm,” she says, “but I was really happy to have my goats and my business to throw myself into. I became a workaholic.” She pursued the vision that she and her husband had clearly defined. “I’m still realizing that vision,” Bice states. “We’ve far exceeded our expectations in terms of size, but I’m still focused on making the best products under the best circumstances and running the whole business focused on quality.”
“Best circumstances” for Bice means operating the company sustainably to make the most of natural and human resources. That’s why Redwood Hill Farm and its organic creamery became 100 percent solar powered last year, with the installation of nearly two acres of solar panels. And the company has an active reuse-and-recycle policy in place that includes an electric vehicle recharging station and a hybrid company vehicle; recycling of manure and straw/hay stems for garden compost and mulch; and the use of reclaimed water. Bice has also instituted an employee reward program for new recycling ideas to keep staff on the alert for constant improvement.
The company provides full health care coverage for employees and their families. And the desire to keep people fully employed was a big part of the decision to launch the lactose-free Green Valley Organics, since the Redwood Hill Farm creamery had room for more capacity. “This business is so labor intensive,” Bice says, “you have to depend on people. I wouldn’t be where I am today otherwise. You have to show that you support and value them.”
Helping her do that are four of her younger siblings, who now work at Redwood Hill Farm. Sharon is the marketing manager, David takes care of events, and Shelly does part-time administrative work. Scott is the farm manager and the driving force behind diversifying the farm to include chickens, an orchard, and a prolific organic garden that feeds the family and some of the staff.
Having the day-to-day support of family means Bice has time for new initiatives, such as the development of a unique—and challenging—Redwood Hill cheese called Gravenstein Gold. Named for the apple variety in Scott’s orchard used to make a hard-cider wash for the cheese’s rind, Gravenstein Gold has been a work in progress for more than two years. Bice no longer does the hands-on cheesemaking at Redwood Hill, but she’s very involved in the company’s research and development. “This is the first time we’ve done a supple, washed-rind raw-milk cheese with long aging,” she reports, recalling some of the many difficulties. “In our early batches, the washed-rind mold started to jump to our bloomy-rind cheeses (Cameo and Camellia) in the aging room, creating all sorts of problems.”
The only solution was to build a separate aging room. After a tense debate with dairy inspectors about where to site it, the new facility was finally built. But then, Bice adds, “we had a mechanical breakdown this past spring, and all the cheeses were ruined.” Still, there have been some lucky turns. On a trip to France this past year, she stumbled upon a small creamery that makes the very same kind of washed-rind cheese. Bice asked them lots of questions. “It’s been a big investment, but we are determined.”
Travel has always helped Bice generate business ideas and enthusiasm. But these days, with another partner in her life, trips have become more frequently getaways. “I had a one-track mind for so many years,” she shares. “Now I have Don, who’s not into the business. He keeps me from being a workaholic. We spent three weeks in France, renting a house, traveling to Paris. At home we play tennis and keep vegetable and bonsai gardens . . . and two dogs that go everywhere with us. I still really love the goats,” she adds, but as time has gone by, she’s found that, like her business, she’s diversified. “My life is typically so planned . . . now the best vacation is waking up and doing anything I want.”written by Molly Watson photography by Megan Clouse