What keeps Redwood Hill Farm still thriving after all these years
Editor’s note: As part of a series on the Sonoma County dairy community, here we profile Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, which for more than 50 years has produced high-quality goat milk products in a sustainable, humane manner.
For the past 50 years, the people behind Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol have taken a redwood-lined ridge and turned it into a nirvana for goats. Along the way, they also became the producers of the only goat milk kefir and yogurt available around the country.
The farm started out during the back-to-the-land era in the 1960s as an ambitious 4-H project for the children of the Bice family, who moved from Southern California to Sebastopol in the late ’60s.
The farm later evolved into a professional hub for breeding and showing goats as well as for making artisan dairy products acclaimed for their velvety texture, slightly tart flavor and nutrient-dense components.
For some people, goat milk is more easily digested than cow’s milk. “The fat particles are small, which makes it easier to digest but also gives it a creaminess,” said Jennifer Bice, whose parents founded the original farm and goat dairy in 1968. “The casein protein in cow’s milk can create allergies, so goat milk was considered more medicinal.”
As we try to refresh our healthy eating routines this month after the holidays, why not prepare a delicious brunch that incorporates the handcrafted dairy of this longtime local company?
The Redwood Hill Kefir, which comes in two flavors, is a versatile product that can be substituted for buttermilk in quick breads and muffins and provide added nutrition to breakfast dishes like pancakes. The kefir also can give a creamy tang to morning smoothies, as well as dressings and marinades.
Kefir is a fermented drink made by adding kefir grains to milk. These are not cereal grains, but grain-like colonies of yeast and lactic acid bacteria.
The yogurt, which comes in four flavors, is a perfect dance partner with fruit salads. It adds tang to vinaigrettes and can even be strained overnight to make a creamy, spreadable goat “cheese.”
According to the Redwood Hill Farm website, goat milk contains 18% more calcium, 43% more potassium, 40% more magnesium and 104% more vitamin A than whole cow’s milk.
The structure of the goat milk is delicate, however, so the farm handles the milk carefully to avoid the stronger flavors that often turn people away from goat’s milk.
“The key is to keep the barn clean and chill the milk right away,” said Scott Bice, farm manager and Jennifer’s youngest brother. “We pump it at lower speeds because it’s fragile.”
Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, the Bice family sold their raw goat milk in glass bottles door to door. Then the natural food stores began clamoring for their goat milk products for their health-conscious customers.
“My parents started bottling raw milk, then they developed the kefir in the 1970s,” said Scott Bice. “They made cartons of Black Cherry Kefir.”
In 1978, after her parents had closed the dairy, Jennifer Bice and her late husband, Steven Schack, bought the dairy and reopened it, starting out with the original product — raw milk in glass bottles.
Through the years, thanks to a combination of hard work and good fortune, the couple grew the business into a national brand, adding yogurt in 1982 and cheese in 1994, just as pioneering chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse were highlighting goat cheese on their menus.
“In the ’80s, it was the start of California cuisine, now known as farm to table,” Jennifer Bice said. “That really brought awareness to our products.”
As consumer demand continued to grow, the company outgrew their production facility on the farm and opened a new creamery in 2003 in a former apple plant in Graton.
Today, fermented foods like goat yogurt and kefir are growing popular again for their high nutrition and probiotics. According to registered dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, who writes about digestive health for U.S. News, eating probiotic-rich foods is an important strategy for overall health, since the bacteria in our guts plays a key role in immune function, which helps protect us against disease.
In addition, there’s a new generation of young consumers who are mindful of buying products that are not only delicious but good for the environment.
“Goats have a lower environmental impact on the world,” said Jennifer Bice, who has always run the farm in a sustainable manner. The farm uses solar panels for all of its energy and a recycled water system for irrigation. Redwood Hill became the first Certified Humane goat diary in the U.S. in 2005 because of its high quality of care for the animals.
After being inducted into the American Cheese Society’s Academy of Cheese in 2011 as one of the eight pioneers of artisan goat cheese, Bice started looking for a succession plan for her business. Not having any family members eager to take on the task, she researched and connected with Swiss dairy maker Emmi, a 100-year-old company majority owned by a cooperative of small-scale farmers.
Emmi, which already owned the well-respected Cypress Grove Creamery in Arcata, bought Redwood Hill Farm in 2015. The company now owns 60 companies in 17 countries and is able to provide them with financial support for investment in new technologies as well as more than 100 years of European dairying expertise.
“They really aligned with my values,” said Jennifer Bice, who stayed on as managing director for several years during the transition. “They push us on our sustainability, and they value people. They kept everybody on.”
Because she could not find a cheesemaker to take over that part of the operation, the company no longer makes goat cheese. Jennifer Bice renovated the old cheese plant next to the milking barn into a small-but-cozy home for herself.
Being owned by a company with other goat diaries in its portfolio, such as Cypress Grove and Meyenberg of Turlock, has enlarged the milk available for Redwood Hill Farm products. Goat milk supply is seasonal, with shortages in the winter and surpluses in the summer.
“We’re able to lean on our partners,” Scott Bice said. “We only milk 80 goats here. That’s only 5% of the milk required for the product.”
In 2010, Jennifer Bice started a sister brand, Green Valley, that makes lactose-free cow’s milk products, including yogurt, kefir, cream cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese and butter.
Bice, who is still a minor employee of Redwood Hill Farm, also serves as co-owner of Patisserie Angelica bakery in Sebastopol, which she bought with one of her Redwood Hill Farm interns, Gergana Karabelov.
Meanwhile, the brother-sister team of Jennifer and Scott Bice has been busy turning the 20-acre Capracopia property into a diversified farm. They have planted 100 Tuscan olive trees and replanted an abandoned orchard with Gravenstein apples. They grow fresh flowers to supply florists and nurture 1.5 acres of hops to sell to local breweries like Crooked Goat, Old Possum and Fogbelt.
They hope to offer tours of the farm once again this spring, after the kid goats are born in April.
“Now that the creamery has been sold, we do agritourism to be sustainable as well as for educating the public about the goats,” Jennifer Bice said. “The farm is called Capracopia, which means goat and abundance. We’re still raising goats and going to goat shows and breeding stock.”