Written by Wendy Bowman Tuesday, January 22 2013
Snapshot: Jennifer Bice, Owner and CEO of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery
When she was a young girl, Jennifer Lynn Bice’s parents relocated her and her nine siblings from Southern California to a farm in Sebastopol, 60 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, so the family could “get back to the land.”
“As kids, we were feeling like we were suddenly in solitary confinement on the farm,” says Bice, who along with her brothers and sisters soon grew to love the lifestyle, even raising and showing goats in the 4-H youth development program.
Today, that quest for a simpler lifestyle – along with an excess of goat milk that the family started selling to local health-food stores – has morphed into Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery Inc., a multimillion-dollar, family-owned, grade A goat dairy operation churning out varied products including milk, yogurt, kefir and artisan cheeses.
Bice and her late husband took over the farm in 1978 when her parents moved to Hawaii, and she and four of her nine siblings now oversee a little more than 50 employees and a herd of 300-plus award-winning goats. The business – which consists of a 20-acre farm and a creamery three miles away – celebrates its 45th anniversary in 2013.
Below, Bice shares how she has made the farm not only profitable but also sustainable and humane.
Womenetics: How successful has your business become?
Jennifer Lynn Bice: When we started, we didn’t have deep pockets or investors or loans, so since 1978 when my late husband and I took over from my parents, we’ve had to make a profit every year to stay in business. Many of those years we had to reinvest almost everything we made back into the business to keep growing and improving and getting better. It will be 35 years for me this year since I started making the business decisions, and our sales are on track this year to be about $16 million. They go up every year. Even through hard economic times, they were going up 10 percent by year. Every year has really increased, and we’re still investing in the business and have new equipment projects we want to do. We always have a lot going on.
Womenetics: How has the farm grown throughout the years?
Bice: Back in 1978, if you wanted to have goats like I did there was nowhere really to sell the milk. So, we had to go into making the product. Farmers make very little money. The processing and making of the products is where you can make some profits and stay in business, and that’s what happened with us.
We have six other family farms in the area that sell their milk to us, and they’re very happy about it. They’re like me 30 years ago in that they want to milk and have the farm lifestyle, but they don’t want to make the product. It’s cost-effective for them not to set up a plant but to sell to us; let us co-mingle the milk and make the product (cheese, yogurt). We believe in fair trade here at home and pay a fair price for the milk to our milk producers.
We also realized that to have a real business we would have to sell more products. Back in those days, you’d mention goat milk to 95 percent of the people, and they would end up gagging or backing away from the demo table. Once we had built up a solid core of people using the milk, we started making cheese and yogurt, thinking the same people buying the milk would buy the other products. It got us off the ground. We were young and knew nothing – didn’t do a formal business plan – but in a nutshell, that was our business plan.
In 2003, we leased a new property and built a creamery. The farm and creamery are three miles apart in Sebastopol. We milk at the dairy and take our milk and the other families’ milk to the creamery and make it into the various cultured products, including yogurt and kefir, which is a drinkable yogurt or yogurt smoothie.
We also do artisan farmstead cheeses – fresh chevre, a cheddar (that we age for at least two years), a smoked cheddar and a raw-milk feta. What we’re most known for is our French style, rind-ripened cheeses.
Womenetics: Where do you sell your products?
Bice: We have a couple of farmer’s markets we go to. My in-laws have been selling for 18 years at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. We also sell to distributors, and they buy from us and deliver it to restaurants or retail shops like the Whole Foods of the world, co-ops and higher-end cheese stores. We started with milk, and then added kefir and yogurt and all the natural health food items, and then came out with cheese last as a gourmet crossover. We already are in health and natural food stores and have crossed over into making the cheese for gourmet cheese shops and for chefs to use.
Womenetics: How did you end up owning a goat farm?
Bice: I was born in L.A., but when I was 10 years old in the ’60s, my parents wanted to be part of the back-to-the land movement and raise their own veggies and animals, and they moved us to Sebastopol. It was kind of the overriding mentality and factors of the book, “The Have-More Plan” (by Ed Robinson), that tells people how to plant their orchard. My parents had a copy of that, and I think it was kind of their inspiration; they latched on to it.
My mom was always an animal lover. My dad also had been in 4-H, and he wanted us to be in 4-H. That’s what led my parents to start our original dairy. While kids in 4-H, we each had our own project, and each of us had about six goats, so it added up to a herd quickly. Since we had so many goats, my parents built a grade A, legal dairy where we could sell the milk. We used to load up the raw milk in glass bottles and drive it to health-food stores. It was a new movement then.
I went to high school and junior college early on, and I couldn’t get the goats out of my mind, as far as having some kind of business and wanting to continue with the goats.
Womenetics: What have been your biggest personal and business challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Bice: Probably my biggest challenge was when my husband died in ’99. We had started our business together in ’78, and for many years it was only the two of us and plus one other employee. We worked together side-by-side, and it was our dream. Then he got pancreatic cancer. He was fine, and five months later he died. It was very quick and sudden.
Every business has its challenges, but when you have a business that’s agriculture-based and has animals, you don’t close for the weekend because they need food and need to be milked. When he got diagnosed, I still had to run the business, and I had to rely on wonderful employees.
And then, when he died, people said, “You’re going to sell the business, right?” I said, “No, I lost my husband and business partner, but at least I still have the business.” I wanted to stay in it, and I knew that would be a good way to honor his memory. That was probably the hardest and most difficult challenge I’ve faced.
Womenetics: What are the benefits of goat milk products?
Bice: There are several differences in goat milk versus cow milk. One is that the butter fat particles in goat milk are very, very small and stay interspersed in the milk unlike raw cow milk. All the cream rises to the top in a big cream layer in cow milk, and in goat milk it stays interspersed in the milk. What this means is because the butter fat particles are so small, it’s much easier for people to digest, especially babies, older people and people with ulcers.
There is also a high percentage of the American population that is lactose intolerant to cow dairy but most not also to goat milk, and that usually factors into it. Goat milk has a lower level of lactose and a different makeup, so most lactose-intolerant people can use the goat milk.
Also, if people are milk-allergic, it’s usually the protein in the cow milk called Casein that causes that. Goat milk has it, but a different makeup, so most people who are allergic to cow dairy are not allergic to goat dairy. Also, goat milk doesn’t have added growth hormones, so more people have been migrating to goat milk.
Womenetics: You refer to yourself as an ‘ecopreneur.’ Explain what that is and what it means to you.
Bice: Definitely, that is one of the most wonderful things. I’m thankful for having my own business because you can run it as you see fit based on your own philosophy. With the climate change and all the issues in the world that there are, it’s really satisfying to be able to operate your business in ways that don’t always mean more for the bottom line.
One of our most major issues is our sustainability. In 2010 was we were able to convert our farm and creamery to 100 percent solar power, which is important because creameries do use a lot of power with all the refrigeration to keep things cold and steam and heat to pasteurize the milk. In addition, our farm for many years has had a hot water solar system. In 2010, we converted to solar power for the electricity for two of the farmhouses and the whole goat living and dairy operations.
We also have an extensive recycling program at our creamery, and we’re insulating and trying to use less water. We’re are also analyzing and researching transportation programs to get more people riding bikes to work and getting credit for carpooling. We’re looking at ways to grow some of our own feed for the goats.
Womenetics: How can everyday folks give back to the land? What are some of your tips for them?
Bice: Just about everyone can grow some of their own food, whether you’re in an apartment and you have pots with fresh herbs or a tomato plant. You can also recycle. It’s incredible the number of people who still don’t recycle. Those two things alone, if everyone did them it would be a major shift in the U.S. You can also minimize your driving and water usage and buy locally. Those little things add up when everyone’s doing them.
Womenetics: Did you ever imagine the farm you grew up on would one day turn into such a successful operation?
Bice: I didn’t really, and still sometimes I go on the weekend when nobody’s working, and I walk around in awe. One thing that I’m just so happy about and so gratified to see in my lifetime is the acceptance of goat products. When I started, nobody wanted to taste the goat milk. They said, ‘Eww, we hate goat,’ and nowadays we do demos and wine and cheese tastings, and people are swamped around us wanting to try the product.
It’s kind of amazing to me because my parents started our business in 1968, and we’ll celebrate 45 years in business next year. To see the growth and experience the growth is a constant challenge. Just when you think you have things figured out, you grow and have to reconfigure things. We have more than 50 employees, and it’s a big challenge to convey our message and have everyone’s on the same page.
Womenetics: What is the most important piece of advice you would give a woman starting a business today?
Bice: I know it sounds trite, but really, when you’re starting a business, try to find something you’re really passionate about. No matter what the business is or what you do, there’s always going to be really difficult or hard times in growing any kind of business. So, if you’re starting out and trying to do a business you’re really passionate about and that is at your core of interest, you’ll be able to stick with it, and you’re going to be much more likely to weather adversity and downsides because you’re so committed.
The other thing is, in business it’s a constant learning process. To have a successful business, you have to be willing and wanting to learn new things all the time. You immerse yourself, do research and talk to people. For me, it’s great because you never get bored with business because there’s always some new.
More on green living:
Lisa Kivirist traded in her corporate advertising career to live a rural lifestyle. Her book "Ecopreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Plant Before Profits" is a blueprint for people who dream of creating their livelihood based on independence and a commitment to sustainability.
The Internet allows us to share almost anything including lawnmowers and cars. Collabortive Consumption is a growing business trend that makes sense economically and environmentally.
The Sabos family takes green lving to the next level. See how they manage to only buy 5 percent of their food commercially.
Wendy Bowman is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance journalist. She spent 15-plus years as a writer and editor for Atlanta Business Chronicle, covering nonprofit business, homes and lifestyles, Atlanta visitors market and more. She currently writes for Riviera Orange County, The Atlantan and Men’s Book Atlanta magazines.