They're nibbling my shoelaces. And the hem of my pants. And the straps of my backpack. It's like being in the center of a basket of puppies or a room full of toddlers. These young goat kids are curious about the world, and they're learning about it with their mouths.
My mouth, on the other hand, has no need for a shoelace when there are so many pungent, well-crafted goat cheeses and goat yogurts to sample. However, I am just as curious, and I nibble with equal tenacity to get a piece of all two-dozen samples of feta, chevra, cheddar and smoked goat cheddar, firm teleme, and crotini into my mouth as quickly as possible. Spring has sprung, and this is equally evident by the warm, dry sun, and the musky, flavorful taste of fresh spun, spreadable and soft rind goat cheese.
This is a typical open farm day at Redwood Hill Farm goat dairy in Sebastopol. For a few days in springtime each year, farm-owner and cheese-maker Jennifer Lynn Bice opens up her cottage industry — a 400-goat strong dairy — for the public to come meander through on a self-guided tour where they meet goats, pet the babies and adults, milk a doe, and most importantly, see where their food comes from. And of course, there is the last stop on the tour, the tasting patio — a lovely outdoor space overlooking the brush landscape, ready for guests to sample three flavors of housebrand goat milk yogurt, fresh and pasteurized firm cheeses, and artisan, medium-aged, pungent soft rind cheeses akin to a brie or camembert.
All that Redwood Hill produces is "near organic," meaning that the goats eat organically when the market for feed has it available, and all the milk that goes into their products is hormone-free. Bice says she'd like it to be a wholly organic dairy, but the organic hay to make this possible isn't always available. Redwood Hill's goat milk yogurt is shipped nationwide, and their cheese is featured prominently in upscale markets like Andronico's and Whole Foods on the West Coast. Individuals anywhere in the country can also order direct from Redwood Hill at www.redwoodhill.com.
But there's more to the farm visit experience than simply eating cheese. Visitors swat the flies in a covered shed to milk a happily distracted female goat, content to eat alfalfa while you try your hand at releasing a few patient ounces of the gallon or more of milk she'll produce today. And of course, for food connoisseurs or the animal-friendly, there is a great pleasure in a drive out to the country, passing antique shops and produce stands along the route, and seeing how the critters that produce our food live and slumber under the shade. It's a lovely escape for a couple of hours, especially if you manage to miss the very hottest part of the day. And of course, playing with and petting the super friendly, super cute goat kids is an experience that human kids and adults find endlessly popular.
Bice has been happily hosting open farm days to the public for the last four years. "First, people wanted to come because [a goat farm] was so unusual," she remembers. But then, as the population of the Bay Area and Sonoma County grew, she started getting daily requests for visits. "People want to know how their food is produced. We've always wanted to have informal tours, but we're a working farm, and we just couldn't say yes to every person who called."
The solution: she started taking caller's contact information and mailed out invitations for specific days where the farm would be ready for visitors. And now, she estimates that with no advertising or promotion, each of the four to six days the farm is open for farm days sees between 70 and 120 daily visitors, though it never feels that crowded. "We're not pushing the tour as an event in itself," she says. "We think of it as providing a service for the people who use our products to see how their food is produced. We think that's an important experience, flies and manure and all."
A well-seasoned goat dairy operator and prize-winning breeder, Bice comes from a family who ran a goat farm and sold its milk to Northern California natural foods stores in the late 1960s. The oldest of ten children, raising dairy goats was a labor-intensive family affair, and years later, she and her late husband opened their own goat dairy. The distribution demands and short shelf life of goat milk (fresh only up to one week) were too taxing for a small business, so in the 1980s Redwood Hill moved toward the production of longer-lasting yogurt and cheese (which can last for several months).
Part of a visit to Redwood Hill means interacting with Bice's team of twelve goat hands, half of which are international workers from all over, including France, Bulgaria, and Thailand. A labor shortage of local farm help and the demands of owning a farm keep Bice from traveling as far and as frequently as she'd like. Thus, foreign students hired on 18-month visas are a pleasant staff alternative that brings in hard workers and a little cultural exchange. Guests to the farm get the pleasure of discussing the goats and the milking process at length, and the goat hands have an opportunity to meet people and practice their conversational English.
The goats themselves are also European imports. The high-producing Alpine, the earless LaMancha, the long-eared and rich butterfat producing Nubian, the large, Swiss-bred Saanen and Toggenburg are the five breeds of goat chosen for their good farming qualities and flavorful, complimentary blend of milks. They all seem to have a good relationship with one another, plenty of room for roaming and escaping the Sonoma sun, and, while I'm not expert on the hygiene of the horned and cloven-footed, these are also the most mildly-scented farm animals I've ever encountered.
And these goats appear to be truly happy; plump, healthy, and people-friendly. The round, mellow flavor of the cheese they produce testifies to their satisfaction at Redwood Hill. Visitors get a taste of the fruits of Bice's labor, and a taste of the farm life. Says Bice, "It's a very pleasurable business and the goats are wonderful. When there are guests here or just when the milk turns to curd, there's never a dull moment."
If You Go
Redwood Hill Farm Grade A Goat Dairy
5480 Thomas Rd.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Call to ask about Open Farm days
Marin Agricultural Land Trust organizes tours of Straus Dairy & Creamery, Giacomini Dairy Pasturelands, McEvoy Olive Ranch, Hog Island Oyster Company, Doughty Dairy & Point Reyes Vineyards, Fresh Run Farms and more.
Hog Island Oyster Company
McEvoy Olive Ranch