Led by one of the pioneers of American artisanal goat cheese in the U.S., this Sonoma County goat dairy and creamery began with one product and now sells more than 20 items in nearly 2,000 retail stores nationwide.

by Deborah Moss

When Jennifer Lynn Bice’s parents, Cynthia and Kenneth, moved their family from Los Angeles to Northern California in the early 1960s, 10-year-old Bice traded urban childhood pleasures such as sidewalk roller-skating for the joys and rigors of farm living. Bice’s parents wanted to get back to the land, so they purchased an abandoned apple orchard in Sonoma County, where they built a house, planted a garden and raised ducks, chickens, rabbits, goats, pigs and cows.

The Family Farm

The goats quickly became the children’s favorite. “Goats are like dogs. We used to dress them up and teach them to jump over things like in the circus,” Bice recalls. The six children joined 4H with goats as their livestock project and the family quickly realized their herd was creating more goat milk than they knew what to do with. Fortunately, the health food movement was revving up, which created a business opportunity.

“The stars aligned for us at that time because this was the moment when health food stores started opening up,” Bice explains. “We had the milk, so we started bottling it and delivering it to those local health food stores.” Thus, Redwood Hill Farm was born.

As the eldest, Bice worked with her mother to sell the milk from their herd of 80 goats in four types (Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian and Saanen). By the time she was 15, her parents built a creamery and a small dairy on their farm with drains and slash walls so they could make a legal product from their own goat’s milk. Bice, whose mother didn’t drive, got her driver’s license at 15 to deliver the goat’s milk to some of the family’s first customers, including Rainbow Grocery, Berkeley Natural and other Bay Area health food stores.

The milk sales helped cover the expenses for the goats, but in the 1970s Bice’s parents shut down the farm to move to Hawaii. During this time, she went from junior college to business college, and even worked for a veterinarian, trying to decide on a career. “I couldn’t figure out anything I wanted to do except [raise] goats,” says Bice. “But to [raise] goats, I had to have some way to make money.”

She started brainstorming with her husband, Steven Schack, to make the goat farm their full-time business. “Initially we thought bottled milk, but back in the ’70s, not many people thought about goat’s milk, so that couldn’t sustain a full business,” she explains. “But we figured if we sold goat cheese and yogurt to the same people interested in the milk, we could have a real business.”

Creating a New Family Enterprise

Top-Selling Redwood Hill Products

  • Plain goat’s milk yogurt (quart size)
  • Plain goat’s milk kefir (quart size)
  • Raw goat’s milk feta (pictured)
  • Fresh chevre

By the end of the 1970s, Bice and Schack began renting her parents’ farm and revived the Redwood Hill brand. In 1983 they bought the farm from her parents. Bice learned to make the cheese and yogurt by reading books, practicing in her own kitchen and taking a class. To make their raw goat milk, the couple used the existing creamery on the farm and worked with a nearby co-packing facility to make the yogurt and cheese. This relationship kept them from having to purchase new equipment to get their products off the ground.

Early Challenges and Opportunities

“With animals, it’s a 24/7 job,” Bice says. “Every 12 hours we were there doing chores (feeding and milking). There was no going away for weekends or holidays. We’d do our milking at noon and midnight so we could go to a movie and see friends.”

The couple worked tirelessly along with their one employee, Steve Considine (who is still with Redwood Hill Farm, now as the dairy manager), because they didn’t have a cushion—they needed to make money. “In those days there weren’t any banks that would give money for goats,” Bice says. “But we had the luck of starting with a legal dairy, and the luck of
nearby co-packers. And we reinvested back in the business.”

They also had the luck of good timing. In the beginning, goat’s milk items were only for very committed health food consumers or the lactose-intolerant, Bice explains. But things began to shift in the 1980s, and goat’s milk products became more appealing for a wider audience. “Alice Waters and other top chefs started having goat products on the menu. Chefs—the leaders of what people are eating and thinking about food—embraced goat cheese, which set the tone and opened up opportunity for other goat products,” says Bice. In 1982, Redwood Hill Farm launched the country’s first goat’s milk yogurt.

Growing Beyond the Farm’s Capacity

As business expanded for their goat milk, yogurt and cheese, Bice had to make a decision about the best way to manage growth. She knew she didn’t want an industrial farm with thousands of goats but they did need more milk. So in 1995, she and Schack adopted a co-op method, seeking out five nearby family farms that were milking goats that matched Redwood Hill’s standards. (Redwood Hill was the first goat dairy in the United States to be certified humane, by third-party certifier Humane Farm Animal Care; the other members of the co-op are also certified.)

The arrangement has worked for all parties involved. “It makes it easier for them; they don’t have to build a creamery and make all the products. And a lot of people raising animals don’t want to be involved in the business side of things,” like making products or marketing, Bice explains, which Redwood Hill takes on. “It’s worked out well for us. We value and support our contributing dairies.”

In 1990, Redwood Hill began its artisanal cheese line with raw goat’s milk feta as the first cheese. In 1994 the company moved its goats three miles away to a larger farm and a larger creamery and introduced the country’s first Camembert-style cheese from goat milk. By 2004 Bice and Schack built a creamery, where the company now makes all its products. “We’ve come full circle,” she says. “At our new state-of-the-art creamery we now do co-packing for
other people.”

In 2010, Redwood Hill introduced a new line of lactose-free cow’s milk products, using milk from a nearby farm, under the name Green Valley Organics. “We had seen lactose-free milk but no lactose-free yogurt and kefir,” Bice notes. The newer brand produces 12 products including a 6-ounce honey yogurt, a 12-ounce sour cream, a 32-ounce strawberry pomegranate acai kefir as well as a 32-ounce creme fraiche for foodservice. In 2012 the line grew 45 percent over 2011 sales.

Brand TimeLine

1964: Cynthia and Kenneth Bice move their family from Los Angeles to Sebastopol, 60 miles north of San Francisco, to live a back-to-the-land lifestyle. They buy their first goat, Flopsy.
1968: Redwood Hill Farm debuts, selling excess goat milk to local health food stores.
1970: Introduces the first goat milk kefir.
1978: Jennifer Lynn Bice takes over the farm with husband, Steven Schack.
1982: Launches the nation’s first goat’s milk yogurt.
1986: Wins first Premier Breeder Award at the American Dairy Goat Association National Show.
1990: Launches artisanal cheese line with raw goat milk feta as its first item.
1994: Introduces Camembert-style cheese from goat milk, a first in the United States.
1995: Joins Specialty Food Association and exhibits at first Fancy Food Show.
2004: Builds a state-of-the-art creamery north of Sebastopol.
2010: Launches Green Valley Organics, a line of lactose-free cow’s milk products, the first certified humane lactose-free brand in the U.S. Converts farm and creamery to solar power.
2011: Bice is named one of the eight pioneers of artisanal goat cheese in the U.S. and inducted into the American Cheese Society Academy of Cheese.
2013: Celebrates 45 years as a Sonoma County family operated, sustainable farm and goat dairy.

Sustainability and Marketing

From its earliest days, Redwood Hill Farm has been committed to providing a sustainable environment and implementing green practices for the benefit of the goats, the land and people. All of the company’s nearly two dozen products—six varieties of yogurt, three flavors of kefir, several French-style cheeses, cheddar, smoked cheddar, feta and many flavors of fresh chevre—are produced in a solar-powered creamery. Since 2010, Redwood Hill has been generating 100 percent of the power needed to run the creamery. In addition to the solar power used to run the creamery and farm, the company has a number of other eco-initiatives, such as composting manure and straw or hay stems from smaller barns for use in its vegetable gardens, and using reclaimed water to clean areas where safe.

While Redwood Hill has been forward-thinking with its sustainability measures, its most successful marketing effort hasn’t changed since the 1970s. “Demos and sampling are still the most important to us,” Bice says. “Today many people still think they don’t like goat products—until they try them.” The business also has a vibrant digital and social media program, which helps spread the word. It’s had a website for more than a decade that was revamped five years ago. A year and a half ago the company launched a blog.

Redwood Hill has active Facebook and Twitter accounts, managed by Bice’s siblings. “David, who was a disc jockey in Hawaii until he started working with us in 2008, has the gift of gab, so he does our Facebook account and lots of our events,” she says. Sister Sharon, an artist and graphic designer who designed the original kefir label when she was only 10 years old, came back to work with the business in the 1990s. She designed the website, revised package labels and creates Redwood’s brochures.

Two other Bice siblings have also returned to work for Redwood Hill. Shelley does customer service and office administration. And Scott, the youngest of the siblings, is the farm manager. “He’s into orchards and plants so the farm has diversified thanks to him,” says Bice. “We have different fruit trees and organic gardens [for the family and employees]. He started an organic olive orchard. We had our first olive pressing this year and want to look at a cheese rubbed in estate olive oil. We’re doing R&D and experimenting while our olive orchard gets more prolific.” The company now has 57 employees.

Future Plans

Along with olive-oil–rubbed cheese, Bice says Redwood Hill wants to add new products, but won’t reveal details yet. “We are always going to do what we do and do it well so we’re not reinventing the wheel. We love our farm and are always making small improvements. We have no plans to export—we don’t want to ship all over the world,” says the sustainability-focused business owner. Bice lives on the farm next to the barn that houses her award-winning herd of 300 Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian and Saanen goats. She says she knows all the animals by name.

When asked for her secrets to success, Bice says: “Hard work and being passionate about what I do—so I work even when it’s challenging. And we always try to have the best-tasting products. For that, there are no shortcuts.” Like all business owners, Bice is mindful of the bottom line, but she subscribes to the triple bottom line—planet, people, profits—with an added “P” for pledge, referring to the Redwood Hill Farm Pledge. It states the family’s commitment to producing healthy, delicious, natural dairy products of the highest quality, providing a sustainable environment and implementing practices for the benefit of the animals, the land and people. And celebrating 45 years in 2013, the business is staying true to that mission.

Professional Assessment: What You Can Learn From Redwood Hill Farm

Food and beverage marketing expert Tammy Katz of Katz Marketing Solutions in Columbus, Ohio, evaluates some of Redwood Hill Farm’s strategies and discusses ways other companies can strengthen their own brands.

Seek and Exploit Market Voids: Redwood Hill Farm constantly identifies and capitalizes on market voids: new, high-growth areas in which there is emerging consumer demand and no one filling those needs. When the owners saw unmet needs for artisanal goat cheese products and lactose-free yogurt and kefir, they quickly developed and added these high-potential new products. They have successfully avoided price-based competition with major food brands by exploiting these niches.

What You Should Do: Constantly monitor category performance, adjacent categories, restaurant and culinary, and overall consumer trends to anticipate what new items, flavors, package sizes, delivery systems, product benefits and packaging structures your consumers are likely to want and need in the future—particularly those that are too small for the largest brands and food manufacturers to pursue. These are the profitable niches that are ideal for specialty food brands to exploit successfully, and avoid or outmaneuver the “big guys.”

Build a Consumer-Driven Distribution Plan: Since inception, Redwood Hill Farm built distribution where heavy users of its products shop, starting with health food stores, and then natural food and specialty food stores. This allowed it to build a strong, loyal user base and a more profitable brand. The business resisted temptation to chase higher-volume traditional grocery stores and clubs, where the brands would likely sell slower and less profitably.

What You Should Do: Build your distribution and expansion strategy based on where your heavy user shops most frequently, projected profitability (factoring in distribution, trade and consumer promotion costs), and where your brand can compete effectively within its category. Rigorously assess the profit potential of new distribution opportunities, particularly if slotting is required. Select distribution outlets in which your brand can be a fast mover due to consumer demand—not where you can buy distribution but suffer from poor sell-through.

Carefully Expand Production Capacity: Redwood Hill Farm made two very smart and creative moves to expand its production capabilities and protect the company’s future: pursuing co-pack and co-op production deals. This let the business grow production capacity and overhead more conservatively and cost-effectively than by making a major investment in production or purchasing a new farm. It avoided an all-too-common problem of making an overly large production investment, then being forced to cut prices, contract manufacture, or private-label solely to pay for excess capacity.

What You Should Do: Don’t overbuild beyond near-term demand. Huge increases in manufacturing overhead can hurt your company or force decisions that are inconsistent with building a profitable brand. To increase capacity, always critically evaluate your build, buy or partner options—particularly if the expansion hinges on one or very few accounts.

Food and beverage brand marketing expert Tammy Katz is CEO of Katz Marketing Solutions (katzmarketingsolutions.com). She has led numerous Fortune 500 and specialty food brands and launched more than 100 new products with cumulative sales of $2 billion. Katz serves on the Board of Directors of several food companies and is adjunct instructor of brand management at the Fisher College of Business MBA Program at The Ohio State University.