Jennifer Bice, A Woman Of Vision

Jennifer Bice and Dog

Jennifer Bice found her life’s work early on. As a child, she and her siblings enjoyed teaching the goats tricks on the family farm. Later, she raised dairy goats for 4H, and then she continued showing goats as an adult. Eventually, Bice’s hobby became a career in her role as the longtime CEO of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in Sebastopol, CA, one of the country’s most respected goat dairies and creameries.

Bice’s parents started the farm in 1968, and she purchased it with her late husband, Steven Schack, a decade later. Under her leadership, Redwood Hill Farm added a Creamery and a became a leading producer of goat milk kefir, yogurt and cheeses; installed over two acres of solar panels on the creamery’s roof; became the first certified humane goat dairy in the United States; and started sister brand Green Valley Creamery, which produces lactose-free organic cow dairy products.

One thing that has remained constant since her childhood is Bice’s affection for her goats. “Given that dairy goats are milked twice a day just like cows, they’re very personable,” she explains. “They’re really tame and friendly, you know, just like a dog would be.”    

Cheese Connoisseur recently spoke with Bice about her pioneering role in the U.S. goat dairy industry, her commitment to sustainability, and the popular misconception that goats will eat anything.

Jennifer BiceCC: You and Redwood Hill Farm are so closely identified with goats.  What are some of your earliest memories of goats?

JB: I was actually born in Los Angeles, and I didn’t move to northern California until I was 10 years old. Even though my parents weren’t what we would call hippies, there was really a “going back to the land” movement at the time, which is why they moved us to Northern California and bought a farm. And we then got just about every animal—pigs, sheep, goats. We even had some cows, rabbits, chickens and ducks.

But the goats quickly became our favorites, because of their intelligence and their playfulness.  They have wonderful personalities like dogs, but they give wonderful milk, too. They also became our favorites because they could learn tricks.

CC: What kind of tricks can you teach goats?

JB: You can teach them to jump up on a bale, you can teach them to turn around, jump off the bale…and you can dress them up, too, so it was a lot of fun.

A lot of them learn their names, if you call them, they’ll come. Of course, they learn to walk with you on a leash like a dog can. I have to admit, we have quite a few these days—about 250, counting the milking goats, the bucks and animals of all ages. So I’m not up for teaching them tricks like I used to!

Goats also are good travelers, so when you go somewhere, they’ll jump in the trailer or jump in the car. Some people have even house broken them, so they can come in as a pet in the house. Since I can see the goats on our farm from every window, I’m not bringing mine in the house.

CC: How did your childhood love of goats become your life’s work as an adult?

JB: Well, I stayed in 4H through high school, and all the while I had dairy goats. During that time, my parents had built a legal Grade A dairy, so they could sell the milk for human consumption to the new health food (or as we call them today, natural food) stores.

I went on to attend junior college and a business college and became a bookkeeper and receptionist and kind of an all-around office person at a veterinary clinic. I just loved animals and wanted to work with them.  I still had the dairy goats, and I was really into showing the animals. You know, kind of like there are horse shows or dog shows, there are goat shows.

But I really wanted to own my own business so that I could do things according to my own values.  My parents sold the farm to my late husband and I, and we took it over in 1978. At that point, they were only selling the raw milk in glass bottles. When we took it over, we really wanted to have a larger business, so that’s when we came out with the different products, such as yogurt, kefir (which is like a yogurt smoothie) and cheeses. We built it up around that.

CC: When you started out, was kefir a fairly niche product?

JB: Yes! Our first kefir was produced in the 1970s, and so many people in this country barely knew what yogurt was. We eventually discontinued it, but we came back out with it in later years, as yogurt became more popular.

It’s nice because it has living cultures like yogurt, so it’s very beneficial. But it’s also a drink, and it’s easy to use for making your own smoothies. It can also be used as a replacement for buttermilk—in baking especially, it does really well.

Jennifer Bice and goats
Neely Wang

CC: What misconceptions do people have about goat milk products?

JB: Worldwide, more people drink goat milk than any other milk, but in our country the cows are king. A lot of times, [goat milk] is such an unknown factor for customers or consumers, that they’re actually afraid or scared to try it.

A lot of people think that goat milk products have a strong flavor. Basically, there are some short chain fatty acids, so if the milk is very high in bacteria or it’s old and degrading, these short chain fatty acids will come out and it gives it what we call kind of a stronger, “goaty” flavor. But well-produced, good-quality goat milk products? Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from cow dairy.

CC: What are some of the advantages of goat milk?

JB: There are people that are actually allergic to cow dairy, and that’s usually due to the protein, called casein, in the milk. And while goats do also have protein or casein, it’s of a different makeup, and so most people that are truly allergic to cow dairy are not allergic to goat dairy.

On the same note, in this country there’s a lactose intolerance issue, and certain genetic groups of people are more lactose intolerant than others. And while goat milk does have lactose, it’s a little bit less and a different makeup than the lactose in cow dairy. So some people can use goat milk even if they’re lactose intolerant. Not all of them though, which is why in 2010 we started a second brand of products called Green Valley Creamery. We buy the cow dairy from a friend of ours nearby here, and then we convert it to lactose free for people who are lactose intolerant and can’t use the goat dairy [products].

CC: What are some of your favorite goat cheeses?

JB: Well, I like just about every goat cheese, I haven’t met many that I don’t like! But probably my very favorites are the French-style goat cheeses that are Geotrichum-rinded.

CC: What is it about those types of cheeses that appeals to you?

JB: The inner cheese is a little bit
softer, it becomes more firm and it actually dries with age. It has more of a texture tending towards the fresh Chevré, which I particularly like. Geotrichum is that mold that has kind of the brainy wrinkles to it, and it gives it a particular, kind of a tart, interesting, earthy, robust flavor. For example, the Crottin de Chavignol from France. For a while we made California Crottin, which is  a typical Geotrichum-rinded cheese.

CC: What do you wish people knew about goats?

JB: There’s two things. One, people think that goats smell bad. And this comes from the fact that during the breeding season, which is in the fall, breeding bucks have musk glands on the top of their head. It’s a strong goaty smell. The reason for that is, in the wild, they would be covering hundreds of acres, and that smell would permeate and then the does and the bucks would be able to find each other in the wild. So really, the bad smell is only from the bucks and only during breeding season.

The other old wives’ tale is that people think the goats will eat anything. You see [greeting] cards with the goats eating the laundry off the line or eating tin cans. But actually, goats are really quite picky about their food. The reason they get this reputation is that they’re like a two-year-old child—they’re very curious, so they put everything in their mouth to taste it.

When farmers say, “Oh, those goats eat everything,” that’s because they are browsers like deer. Cows and sheep are grazers, so their natural diet is grass, whereas the browsers, their natural diet is tree bark, the more woody, brushy materials like thistles, berry vines, rose bushes, that kind of thing. Really, goats don’t eat grass unless they’re starving and trying to stay alive.

Bice in bakery
Bice relaxes in he bakery Neely Wang

CC: Can you tell us about some of the goats that have made the biggest impression on you over the years?

JB: Well, I’ve had a lot of favorites over the years—it’s hard to just call out one. There’s always ones that do better at the shows, and that’s nice. But working with them day-to-day, it’s the personable ones that are really the favorites.

We had one doe named Rima, who recently passed on but she lived to be about 14 years old. And she was so friendly. We do tours on our farm for people because we’re fairly close to the Bay Area, and there’s more and more people who want to see how their food is produced. It got to the point where if she saw a group of people, even if she was laying down in the barn, she’d get up and run over to the gate. We would just open the gate and let her out, and she would just walk with the people on the tour.

She was a special one, but there have been a lot of ones that were special. That’s the nice thing about goats.

CC: What inspired your decision to become the first certified humane goat dairy in the country?

JB: I think that really goes back to our love of the animals. Of course, the way we were raising our goats, we didn’t really have to do anything [to become certified], it was humane.

But by being certified humane, it’s almost like the organic certification where you’re certified by a third party. It’s more believable to your customer that can’t come to visit us at the farm in California. They can also go and look at the standards for being certified humane. Because of the requirements in those standards, it makes it so that you can’t really be factory farming.. That’s another area that we feel strongly about—it should be family farms and not factory farming.

Today, we buy some of our goat milk from five other family farms, but they’re all certified humane, as well.

CC: Why is sustainability a driving value of Redwood Hill Farm?

JB: We always take the long term look at things rather than the short term. We feel that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time, and we want to do our part. That’s one of the wonderful things about having my own business—I can run my business according to my own personal values of wanting to be sustainable.

And businesses have, to my mind, more responsibility, and they also have the availability to do more because they’re larger and can institute savings throughout the company that can have a much bigger result than just a single person. Although with climate change being such a big challenge, it behooves everyone to do whatever little thing they can do in this day and age.

Bice in kitchen
Bice in her bakery kitchen

CC: Which sustainability efforts at Redwood Hill Farm are the most important to you?

JB: We have many initiatives, both in farming and production. Probably our biggest contribution has been in solar. Our creamery has 2,500 panels that cover over 2 acres of roof space. Dairy production uses a lot of energy when you think about the refrigeration and the pasteurization, heating and cooling.

When we installed solar at the creamery—it’s 586 kilowatts—it covered about 85 percent of our usage at the creamery. Because we’ve grown since we’ve put it in, it now covers about 75 percent of our energy usage. But in our area of California, we’re able to select an [energy] provider that only uses alternative wind and geothermal. So technically 100 percent of our energy usage is alternative and not fossil fuels.

At the farm we’re 100 percent solar powered, which operates the dairy and two houses on the farm. But we’ve also done other things. Probably our second most important contribution is that we put in rainwater tanks, and so we’re able to collect and store 100,000 gallons of rainwater.  This is really important in our area, because in the winter we have quite a bit of rain, but being in California we also have the droughts that come and go. Having this rainwater storage has really been beneficial in that regard.

We’re a no-till farm, and we also grow Tagasaste for feed for our goats, which is a nitrogen fixer and carbon sequester. At all our locations, we reduce, reuse and recycle. We’re into doing what we can do.

CC: In 2015, you sold Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery to Swiss dairy maker Emmi.  What inspired that decision?

JB: I’m 64, I’ll be 65 next year—I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I really felt like it was more of my life’s work than just a business to sell. Ultimately, I really wanted it to go on so that even someday when I’m retired, I can still buy my products in the store.

CC: Why was Emmi the right fit?

JB: I was trying to look around to find the best company, and actually Emmi contacted me. A friend of mine, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove, had sold to them in 2010. One of the reasons that she had sold to them and one of the reasons that I really wanted to go with them was, even though the business becomes part of the Emmi group, they’re very keen on having it remain in its original community, keeping the original staff and management. They support the strategy and help when needed, but they don’t get involved in everyday decision making at the company level.

Of course, it’s very beneficial because they do have expertise in both business and production.  They’re very helpful when you want advice or any kind of expertise that, as a small business, we wouldn’t have.

To this day, they’re still majority owned by a cooperative of small dairy farmers, and they only have dairy companies. That’s the other thing I liked about them.

CC: What are your hopes for the future of Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery?

Bice on the farm
Bice on the farm Neely Wang

JB: I really do hope that it continues on. It’s kind of fitting that, as we’re celebrating our 50th year in business, I’ll be retiring as the CEO at Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery. I’ll be staying on as the founder to give business advice, but also to be an ambassador for the business, so that will be exciting. To just walk away after doing this for 50 years would be really hard.

I have a really excellent and outstanding group of employees, and I know that they’re aligned with the values and the culture of our company. I feel that we’re in good hands with having them go on. And then I’ll also be continuing with my farm, Redwood Hill Farm. I’m really looking forward to the future.

CC: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome over the years at Redwood Hill Farm?

JB: Well, there’ve been a lot of them!  Starting small, being undercapitalized and having a goat business was really tough in the beginning, because there weren’t ways to get loans to grow your business. So that was difficult. We just kept at it, and we were able to grow through having more goats and selling more product.

The other biggest challenge—again, at the beginning—was the perception of goat dairy products. Even though they’re still a niche product, the perception of goat dairy and the industry has changed quite a bit from when I started in the ‘60s. It’s really gratifying to see that change in my own lifetime, and I feel like we’ve been part of that, helping the industry to have a better reputation and people be more accepting of goat dairy products.

CC: Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

JB: One is that when I did sell the creamery to Emmi, but kept the farm. I live at the farm that my brother and I still run. To have a sustainable, thriving and diversified farm is really satisfying, and I’m really proud of that. In addition to the goats, which are the stars of the farm, we also have an olive orchard where we press our own olive oil, and we have a small [apple] orchard. We’ve started raising and growing hops, for the craft brewers that are wanting more and more fresh hops.

But I have to say my personal identity, I always feel like I’m a goat farmer and a cheesemaker. I was really proud of being named as an American Cheese Society pioneer of goat cheese.

I’ve also established a grant, and I’ve worked with the California Artisan Cheese Guild to administer it. I award $10,000 each year to the next generation of cheesemakers to help them be able to grow and become a part of the cheese world and the cheese industry.

And, looking to the future, I recently purchased with my partner Gergana Karabelov, an artisan bakery called Patisserie Angelica in our town of Sebastopol, Sonoma County. It was started 24 years ago by two sisters that have decided to retire and move to France.  The Patisserie specializes in French-style pastry, custom cakes, and wedding cakes all made with local, non-GMO and organic (where available) ingredients. We also have a cozy Parisian-style café where we serve a variety of desserts, coffee and even high tea. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, and we are happy to continue the legacy and deliciousness of the previous owners. Of course, I am always thinking about cheese, and we are already thinking about adding some savory offerings such as quiche, crepes and an artisan cheese board!

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