What keeps Redwood Hill Farm still thriving after all these years

Redwood Hill Farm is the nation’s leading goat milk yogurt and kefir producer.|

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.”

For updated information on Capracopia’s tours, go to redwoodhillfarm.org and click on Tours. For more information on Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery, go to redwoodhill.com

The following recipes are from Redwood Hill Farm. Tangy citrus combined with creamy, herby goat milk yogurt makes for a fresh, flavorful and elevated side dish or appetizer at the table this winter.

Herbed Yogurt and Citrus Salad

Makes 5 servings

1½ cups of Redwood Hill Farm Plain Goat Milk Yogurt

1 large orange of any type

2-4 small/medium-sized mandarins

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mint

2 tablespoons finely minced chives

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine yogurt, herbs and vinegar in a small bowl.

Pour herbed yogurt onto a large plate or serving dish.

Remove rind and pith from citrus.

Slice citrus into thin slices and place over the top of the herbed yogurt on plate. Garnish with mint leaves.

While some smoothies are just sugary treats with little nutrition, this one is the real deal. Packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and protein, it has all the building blocks to jump-start a healthy day. Immune-boosting ginger and anti-inflammatory turmeric are mellowed by potassium-rich banana, creating a harmonious blend of spicy and sweet.

Carrot Turmeric Kefir Smoothie

Makes 2 servings

1 large ripe banana, previously peeled, sliced and frozen

1 cup frozen or fresh pineapple

½ tablespoon fresh ginger

¼ teaspoon ground turmeric (or substitute cinnamon)

½ cup carrot juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 cup Redwood Hill Farm Plain Goat Milk Kefir

Add smoothie ingredients in a blender and blend on high until creamy and smooth. Scrape down sides as needed.

Taste and adjust flavors as needed, adding more banana for sweetness.

Divide between two glasses and serve. Best when fresh.

How delicious and comforting is the occasional warm muffin right out of the oven on a chilly winter morning? One of the biggest joys we get when baking comes from discovering simple recipe swaps. In this case, creamy, protein-packed goat milk kefir stands in for buttermilk.

Spiced Goat Milk Kefir Muffins

Makes 12 servings

1 cup Redwood Hill Farm Plain Goat Milk Kefir

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

½ cup honey

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 eggs

1 tablespoon Meyer lemon zest and 2 tablespoons juice (about 1 lemon)

1¾ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon cardamom

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with 12 paper liners.

In a large bowl, mix together the olive oil, honey and vanilla.

Mix in eggs, kefir, lemon zest and juice until smooth and creamy. Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and salt. Mix until smooth.

Divide the batter among the lined cups. Transfer to the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Serve the muffins warm.

Weekend brunch just isn’t complete without classic homemade pancakes. This breakfast favorite is made even better by replacing buttermilk with goat milk kefir for fluffier pancakes and added frozen blueberries for a tasty boost of antioxidants. Top with warm maple syrup and enjoy. Adapted from New York Times Cooking’s Perfect Buttermilk Pancakes recipe.

Blueberry Goat Milk Kefir Pancakes

Makes 4 servings

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1½ teaspoon baking powder

1½ teaspoon baking soda

1¼ teaspoon salt

2½ cups Redwood Hill Farm Plain Goat Milk Kefir

2 large eggs

1 cup blueberries, frozen

2 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil

Vegetable or coconut oil for the pan

Blend flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a bowl. Add the kefir, oil and eggs and whisk everything together until well combined. Lumps are fine; do not overbeat.

Keep the blueberries frozen until the pan is hot and add to the batter just before you’re ready to pour it in the pan. This helps maintain their bright color and form in the pancake.

Heat a large nonstick skillet on medium-low heat. Wait until the pan is warm and add a tablespoon of oil to the skillet. Ladle ⅓ cup of batter into the skillet.

Flip pancakes once bubbles rise to the surface and the bottoms are golden brown, after about 2 to 4 minutes. Adjust heat if necessary. Cook until both sides are lightly browned.

Something about a warm and cozy potato dish with the perfect creamy, tangy sauce feels just right for fall and winter. Adapted from Dolly and Oatmeal’s recipe, this recipe uses Redwood Hill Farm plain yogurt for an added creaminess and tang that pairs perfectly with the salty crunch of the potatoes.

Crispy Potatoes with Yogurt Vinaigrette

Makes 6 servings

1 cup Redwood Hill Farm plain goat milk yogurt

2 pounds baby potatoes

Extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped herbs

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2-3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons maple syrup

1 clove garlic, minced

Fine salt and fresh pepper

In a large pot, add potatoes and a pinch of salt and cover with water. Boil for 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft and easily pierced with a fork.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add potatoes to a well-oiled baking sheet. Place each potato on a sheet and gently smash with a fork. Add a light pinch of salt to each potato.

Cook potatoes for 15 minutes or until lightly golden, flip and cook for 10 additional minutes. Remove when crispy.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the goat milk yogurt, oil, vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, garlic and salt and pepper.

Place crispy potatoes on a serving platter, drizzle with vinaigrette, garnish with fresh herbs and enjoy.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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