Redwood Hill Farm kind of crept up on Gavin and me as we wound our way through the small back roads of Sonoma County. As we approached from the road, it looked like just another private home with a small yard for livestock. We pulled into the driveway of the house, and were greeted by the family farm dog, Chrissy. She looked like she could have been some kind of Chihuahua mix to me! David Bice, one of the four Bice siblings (out of 10) who work at Redwood Hill, was there to take us around the farm, which extends over 20 acres.
Further down the driveway, to the left, we saw them. The goats. These were the adult ones, and many of them ambled up to the fence to say hello and have their heads caressed. Another bunch, composed of white Saanens, multicolored French alpines, floppy-eared Nubians, and the elegant La Mancha goats, huddled in a cozy hay-covered corner for their afternoon nap. They are free to wander from pasture to one of the farm’s three barns, and are all princes and princesses! David then asked, “Do you want to see the baby goats?” Yes! This is what we came for! Being spring, this is kidding season, and there are lots of babies being born! The Farm opens its doors twice a year during this time, for open houses.
As we walked to the kiddie area of the farm, we crossed the fruit orchards, which take up approximately half of the 20-acre property. There, Redwood Hill cultivates apples (Gravenstein apples, used to make the cider that washes its famed Gravenstein Gold cheese), cherries, figs, walnuts, and plums. Dotting the property are also what looks like a dozen picnic tables. During open houses, families often bring along picnic lunches, or can feast on the fruits (or cheeses/yogurts/kefirs) of these goats’ labor. The property felt like an idyllic oasis. Out here on this Sebastopol farm, I could only hear the wind and the goats. Chrissy pranced around our feet, but she didn’t make that much noise.
The kids were divided by age—1 week, all the way up to 7 weeks. As we walked up to their enclosure, they were running the length of this “playpen” at full speed all together, jumping up on unsteady tree stumps along the way with no fear at all. I knew I wanted to pet the silky, long ears of the Nubian newborns, so we went in to their enclosure. They trotted up to us, and immediately began examining my clothing and outstretched fingers with little nibbles.
David explained that not only is owner Jennifer an active cheesemaker, she runs one of the most respected goat breeding programs in the country. All of these youngsters we were petting are spoken for, and are much sought-after. Jennifer is often called on to judge at goat competitions, and she shows some of the goats from Redwood Hill. “They know they’re special,” David said of these “beauty queens.” They are the divas of the farm, and although they are working animals just like the non-show animals, they know that they get more attention than the others.
At this moment, another one of the Bice siblings, Scott, came over to say, “Hello,” and shared with us the news that some folks from Cypress Grove had come to visit the farm to check out their practices. Yes, that Cypress Grove. David asked, “Was [Cypress Grove founder] Mary [Keehn] with them?” Not this time! “That would be asking too much!” I thought out loud.
We continued to play with the newborns, as I learned more about these extraordinary goats. The farm keeps about 300 of them, and they are watched over by brother Scott and sister Trinity. The kids are born about 1-3 at a time, after a 5-month gestation. Each goat has a unique personality. They have also been very domesticated, and love human attention. Being sensitive to rain, and relatively clean animals, they need to have indoor space. Redwood Hill Farm is certified humane, and you can see why. There is plenty of space and food (alfalfa, bean hay) for the goats, and their caretakers are truly committed to their wellbeing. Once a goat’s milking days are over, it remains on the farm to live out its days. The Bices see this as the least they can do to repay a goat for its years of milk and services.
It was also here that I learned that Redwood Hill is restarting production of its washed-rind cheese, Gravenstein Gold! The cheese was very successful, but the b. linens bacteria that grew on the rind were so invasive, they were starting to spread to other cheeses. To isolate them, the Bices needed to build a new aging room! David invited me back to the farm the week after our visit to taste some. That was about 3 weeks ago, so there MUST be some Gravenstein Gold lurking somewhere! I haven’t yet tasted it, and I am dying for the chance to do so! And yes, the Gravenstein apples grown on the farm are used to make the hard cider that washes this cheese. Yumm!!
On with the tour! I had a whole list of questions to ask, but I was so easily distracted by the babies!
We visited the milking building, which is across from an enormous solar panel installation—three acres of it. The Bices completed this system last year (and have also installed solar panels at their creamery), and it’s working well for them. As we watched their twin cats, Jeannie Bikini and Max, romp among those solar flower stems, David gave a quick summary of the mountains of contracts, agreements, and coordination needed for this project to be completed. I think it’s amazing that they accomplished so much! Now, the creamery and the farm are completely solar-powered.
In the milking building, we saw stations for up to ten goats at a time. David said that the goats quickly learn the routine, since milking happens 3 times a day. Some of them are apparently so picky that they must be milked at the same station every time! The milk is piped over to the milk vat, which sees about 500 gallons a day. When I peeked in, there were about 250 gallons in the vat. It was pure white, with some pockets of frothy cream on top. Goat milk is naturally homogenized, unlike cow milk, so that’s one less step in the production process. What sorts of products does Redwood Hill Farm milk go toward? About 75% is used to make its yogurt and kefir products, which, by the way, are fabulous. I have been thoroughly enjoying the pineapple/orange/mango kefir David generously offered me, and I usually don’t drink flavored kefir. Twenty-five percent of the milk goes toward making cheese, like the soft-ripened Camellia, made famous by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, their full-flavored and savory feta (not too salty like others I’ve tried!), their goat cheddar, or Gravenstein gold! They do sell limited quantities of goat milk, but it stays local. Goat milk is best fresh!
It was only when we exited the milking room that I realized that a house—Jennifer Bice’s house—is attached to the milk room. She likes to stay close to the animals, I presume!
We took one last round back at the front barn, where I saw one of the most beautiful goats I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen that many). She was a La Mancha, almost the color of oak. I thought she looked like Audrey Hepburn. In response to this, David just said, “People do tend to identify best with the La Manchas. Maybe it’s because of the ears [they don’t have visible ears] or because they are the most intelligent.” Maybe that’s his nice way of saying, “You’re crazy!” Just behind “Audrey,” I got to see a full-sized billy goat to compare. Whoa. That guy was huge. He looked like a horse, except with a huge, fluffy white beard. David warned me not to touch it or else the billy goat smell, difficult to remove, would rub off on me. OK! No touching the billy!
At this point, we’d seen just about everything. David had VERY generously prepared an insulated Redwood Hill Farm treat bag with some cheese knives, a shot glass with the Redwood Hill Farm logo(to fill with kefir, of course), a round of Camellia, goat feta, smoked goat cheddar (I’d melt that over a sandwich any day), plain yogurt, cranberry orange yogurt, traditional chèvre, fire-roasted chile chèvre (I am still swooning over that discovery!), and the pineapple/orange/mango kefir. I am going to have to taste the other kefir flavors, seeing how delicious the one I tasted is.
I do hope to visit the Farm again, and the creamery, especially now that I know that Gravenstein Gold production is coming back in full force. I would like to extend a very heartfelt thanks to David for showing us around the farm, and for introducing Miss Cheesemonger to Redwood Hill’s beautiful, cuddly, and quirky goats.