they get their fill: At Redwood Hill, hay
is served "free-choice". The type of hay
varies depending on the animals' seasonal nutritional
The first thing anyone will tell you about Jennifer Bice
is that she knows all 400 of her goats by name. Unfortunately,
it’s also usually the last thing they say about her
animal husbandry, which makes for the misleading impression
that she might also sit on a three-legged stool and milk the
goats by hand, or perhaps skip among them while wearing some
cute European costume and playing a flute.
animal should have a name.
They deserve it."
I already knew that was wrong, but it seems particularly
inaccurate now, as I stand in the adorable-looking red barn
watching a procedure that goes something like this: farm manager
Marty Holzhauser sticks a Pyrex tube as wide as a quarter
into the back end of a goat named Amicale. (“It’s
a French name,” he tells me.) He hangs a skinny flashlight
inside the glass tube, inserts a thinner tube into her cervix,
and through it pushes in a vial of semen frozen back in December
1990. The semen is from Willow Run Armand, a buck from Ohio
who sired three grand champion daughters before he died four
Marty explains that Amicale is “genetically important”
to the purebred herd, and that’s why she is being bred
“strategically,” i.e. artificially. If she knows
it, though, she isn’t letting on. Although the experience
makes her jerk her head a bit, she doesn’t wriggle or
kick, but just chomps at the grain bribe she was given to
lure her into the stanchion.
As Marty makes notations in a log book, I comment that this
isn’t the kind of individual attention one would imagine
from people who name their goats things like Iris and Chlöe.
“That’s true,” he says, looking up to address
me intently. “But still I do it with true affection
and respect. I mean, I remember her great-great grandmother.
I know these goats well.”
Local success, international appeal
Looking on is Plamen Stoyanov, one of six international students
who fill out the work force at Redwood Hill. He comes from
Bulgaria, where his family has a small farm and raises a few
goats. He says that arrangement is standard there; even in
Stara Zagora, the city where he studies veterinary science,
people return to their villages on weekends to make food for
the upcoming week.
summers: Jennifer Bice, Marty Holzhauser,
and the 2002 Redwood Hill Farm interns (photo by
And yet what he’s here to study is not modern American
husbandry—he already knows how to artificially inseminate
a cow. He is here to learn cheesemaking. Now, his grandmother
could show him how to make cheese; she has done it her whole
life, without recipes or thermometers. (“She just knows
when to add things.”) Furthermore, Redwood Hill’s
recipes wouldn’t fly back in Sofiya, where mold-ripening
is unpopular. What Plamen hopes to learn here is how to make
cheese not just for the family, but, as he says, “so
that you can earn.”
It’s no wonder the farm attracts students like Plamen,
who care about growing a modern business but come from Bulgaria,
Thailand, and other countries that retain strong traditions
of small-scale agriculture. Redwood Hill makes sense to them
because its success lies in having transferred the values
of a family-style farm to a thriving, commercial operation.
It all began in 1968, when Jennifer’s parents moved
the family from Los Angeles to the then-boondocks of Sonoma
“We got two of every animal, but goats were what stuck,”
Jennifer told me in her office, where the wood paneling is
nearly covered over with paintings and posters of goats, many
of them hers. “They’re friendly, they have personalities.
Some people even housebreak them, but I figure I can see them
out every window of the house, and that’s enough.”
Her father raised a herd whose milk he bottled and sold.
He also started a goat program in the local 4-H, and in it
Jennifer learned about raising animals conscientiously. When
she and her late husband took over the farm, in 1978, that
“I always say we’re like overgrown 4-Hers,”
Jennifer said. “When you’re in 4-H you only have
a couple of animals so everything is done to the nth degree.
A lot of dairies you go to the animals aren’t purebred,
they don’t know one goat from another, they don’t
give them the full vet care. We trim their hooves, we vaccinate
them, we give them the ultimate feed. Being raised in 4-H
and doing everything to the nth degree—that’s
how I like it done.”
Challenging factory-farm methods—and
Until recently, American farmers considered goats “poor
man’s cows”, not modern agricultural animals.
With little market for their products, there was no reason
to commodify them in the way poultry, cattle, and others livestock
had been. But with mounting demand—for milk, from the
natural foods movement of the 1970s, and now for cheese, from
the gourmets of the last two decades—goats are increasingly
being raised in conditions that suggest a factory more than
||"People who abuse animals aren’t
in the industry long."
The details are familiar: herds of 1000 or 2000 animals;
inadequate space; living quarters with no hint of the animals’
natural environment. Instead of premium feed, goats are given
food industry scraps, low-quality hay, or an overload of cheap
grains. It’s a vicious cycle: because of neglect, the
animals suffer poor health; poor health reduces their productivity;
reduced productivity requires volume to increase profits;
increased volume means greater neglect.
The majority of goat herds in the United States number just
30 to 50 animals, but most are raised for breeding and showing.
Because it takes about ten goats to produce as much milk as
one cow, their milk production is too small to be more than
a by-product. Selling the milk might work in a place where
traditions of small-scale food production remain, but in the
U.S. it would be unprofitable.
Jennifer admits she would rather have only 50 goats in the
herd, but to break even, there must be volume. And so she
has increased her numbers—but without sacrificing that
basic 4-H ethic.
“A lot of commercial people say ‘I have to cut
corners or I won’t make any money.’ We could cut
costs right and left and have a cheaper product, but I wouldn’t
want to be doing that—I wouldn’t want to be in
Instead, Redwood Hill has stepped outside the seemingly fixed
equation that sees profit as constantly threatened by costs.
Oddly, this was possible because of the initial lack of interest:
Because goat milk has never been a big commodity, there are
no subsidies or lobbying groups determining prices, no outlets
where farms can dump off lots of cheap product. Americans
are all but born with an expectation that cows' milk should
be inexpensive, but nobody has preconceived notions of what
goat products should cost. So Jennifer was able to set her
own standards, and then set her price to reflect how much
those standards cost.
Top-quality feed, careful breeding and
exchange : Young people from around the
world, like Plamen Stoyanov, above, flock to the
farm to learn. Many from regions where small-scale
farming is still a respected way of life.
To begin with, she doesn’t skimp on food. It’s
always the best available, and organic when possible. The
daily staple is high-protein alfalfa, but what each goat eats
varies constantly. Most months there is lima bean hay, which
with its mature beans and full beanstalks resembles the goats’
fibrous wild diet. In the searing Sonoma summer, though, when
fiber makes the goats too hot, they switch to red oat hay.
All the hay is served “free choice,” which means
it’s available around the clock in the barn, in the
yard, and scattered about so even the meek ones get their
fill. Grain, on the other hand, is monitored closely. Milkers
might eat it for 30 percent of their diet so they don’t
draw on their body’s reserves for heavy lactation. Kids
get some as they grow, but the “teenagers”—caprine
heifers—get none until the last few weeks of pregnancy.
Breeding is similarly monitored. Some does are “strategically”
mated, but most just spend an afternoon in a private stall
with one of the farm’s many thick-nosed, pure-bred bucks.
The pairing happens when Marty thinks it’s time, but
he can only guess. I saw him bring Anagram in to join a buck
named Cherrypines Stand Out, but after maybe 30 seconds of
the doe giving the buck the cold shoulder, Marty pulled her
out. “She isn’t ready,” he said, then bent
down and used the opportunity to trim the disappointed buck’s
This selective mating means Jennifer and Marty know the lineage
behind each kid, all the way out to its great-grandparents—a
control most farms don’t bother with. Pure breeding
offers a basic quality control, guaranteeing that the herd
is made up of superior goats. Most of the herd could compete
in formal contests, and many have done so and won.
There is also a practical reason for the tight control over
breeding, and that is Caprine Arthritic Encephalitis (CAE).
The virus, which drags on the animal’s immune system
and shortens its life expectancy by perhaps half, is a plague
among modern goat herds—a recent study estimated 80
percent of the world’s goats have the debilitating disease.
Redwood Hill has all but eliminated it.
The meticulous care shown in breeding resumes after the kids
are born. Again, to prevent CAE, newborns are not allowed
to nurse directly from their mothers. The does’ teats
are taped, and the kids’ first meal is a bottle of colostrum
that has been heated to kill the virus. Bottle-feeding takes
a lot of precious time, but Jennifer thinks the attention
it provides is critical. “It keeps us very aware of
the animals’ health,” she said. “Only our
best employees get to feed the goats, because if you don’t
see something at one feeding, the animal can die by the next.”
Kids eventually graduate to pasteurized milk, which they
suck out of a white bucket with black, rubber nipples sticking
through its sides—a sort of alien doe. Jennifer saw
something similar in a catalog for sheep, and now makes them
by hand for her herd.
“Others would have them drink straight from a trough
or a bucket. We did that initially, but the goats didn’t
have the sucking reflex: they would slurp up the milk and
then go around all day sucking at the air. They turned out
fine, but it seemed not very natural.”
This sense of what seems right or not is often the basis
for decisions at Redwood Hill. They once kept the bucks in
small, separate stalls, but it seemed unfair. That’s
the standard industry arrangement, the argument being that
individuals kept just for breeding don’t warrant extra
space, but bucks put in larger, group pens will fight. Jennifer
figured out that if she introduced the bucks to one another
outside of breeding season, they had no reason to fight. By
the time breeding season arrives, they are comfortable enough
that they direct their instincts across the fence to the does.
As Marty worked his way through trimming all the bucks’
hooves that afternoon, he put it to me plainly: “People
who abuse animals aren’t in the industry long.”
Whether it’s trimming 1600 hooves every two months or
separating the does into two herds so the line to the milking
parlor is shorter, the details at Redwood Hill mean the goats
breathe easier, live longer, and ultimately produce more.
While larger goat farms might yield two quarts of milk per
animal daily, Jennifer gets four to eight. While most dairy
goats live four or five years, Redwood Hill goats regularly
make it to ten.
In fact, a particularly beloved goat once made it to 14 years,
Marty tells me. Her name was GCH Redwood Hills Oracle Sonrisa.
The “GCH” denoted her status as a permanent champion
from having won so many shows; Marty called her just Sonrisa—Spanish
Toward the end, Sonrisa was picked on too much to stay in
the pasture, and so she lived in the open space around the
barns and along the driveway. Being rather senile, twice she
wandered down the road and was returned by neighbors, but
mostly she just wandered around with the pet dogs.
Telling me this, Marty’s voice gets soft and his expression
loosens. His eyes drift off across the driveway as he talks
about her final disappearance, and I think of what he told
me moments ago. “Every dairy animal should have a name,”
he said. “They deserve it.”