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.
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 years ago.
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.
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 County, California.
“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 ethic continued.
“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 assumptions
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 a farm.
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 business.”
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 sensitive
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
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.”