Important News from Jennifer Bice
Sebastopol, CA, December 1, 2015
My dear friends,
I have important news to share with you. Yesterday, on November 30th, I agreed to sell my business, Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery, to Emmi, a dairy and cheese company from Switzerland. Please allow me to tell you about my journey towards this decision. I want you to know why I chose Emmi – a company which is, to this day, majority owned by a cooperative of small-scale dairy farmers. I will describe how this change will benefit our community, and how it will allow me to deepen my relationship with my animals and the land that sustains us all.
Despite this change, I will remain as the head of the company, overseeing the day-to-day operations for several years to come and I will be retaining ownership of my farm and my dairy goats. This is what Emmi has asked of me, and what I have of course agreed to do. My management team and all of my employees will remain the same, as we continue to run the company as an independently operated subsidiary of Emmi Holding (USA), Inc.
As you can imagine, this decision was a big and difficult one, which I made over a long period of time with our entire community in mind. This acquisition is the result of years of careful research and succession planning to ensure that, after I retire, Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery will continue to thrive as a Sonoma County business, a community resource, and a dairy producer that brings goat milk dairy and lactose-free cow milk dairy to people from coast to coast.
As a woman in her sixties, I realize that I will not live forever. I am attached to my business and I feel lucky to have built it here in Sonoma County based on my personal values and vision. I am proud to pay my employees a living wage and full family benefits, support our community, keep my farm and sustain other family farmers, care for my goats and always make ethical business decisions instead of making choices that are cheaper and easier.
To just die one day and leave my business and all the people who depend upon it for their livelihoods with no clear plan for the future was not an option. Being the responsible type, I had to find a way to allow all of my treasured employees to stay on, as well as the management team that helped me grow the company.
In the last ten years, I have been approached nearly 20 times from people and companies who wanted to buy my business. It never felt right. Good options are limited, and to do it right, the process has taken me a lot of strategic thought and a long time to find the right partner.
Earlier this year, I visited Emmi in Switzerland and several of their production facilities, as well as four different cow and goat dairy farms they source their milk from. I was deeply impressed with the thoroughness and efficiency with which they run their dairy operations. I saw employees who received training and were promoted from within, which is what I have always aspired to do at Redwood Hill.
I couldn’t have been happier to see the good health and the way in which the animals were raised at those farms. One of the farmers, Benedikt Schmid in Menzingen, has a cow that is 24 years old. I have rarely seen such consideration for older dairy animals. This is the level of compassion and care that I had hoped to find in a successor that could lead Redwood Hill as I have – both with my heart and my head.
Emmi is a very successful, large, publicly traded company, producing a variety of cheese, yogurt, yogurt drinks and other dairy products in Switzerland, the European market and beyond. To this day the company is majority-owned by a cooperative of Swiss dairy farmers. These farmers have on average 10 to 50 cows, which is very small in size for Sonoma County standards. You might remember that I have nearly 200 milking goats.
With this relationship, we can tap into more than 100 years of experience in cheesemaking and dairy craft. Emmi goes back to 1907, when 62 dairy farm cooperatives in central Switzerland founded an association that would later become the company “Emmi”. The name is derived from the community of Emmen, which is located on a river with the same name. This river has its source in the Emmental, where the famous Emmentaler cheese comes from.
I am aware that many Bay Area natural and organic food businesses have been sold in recent years to large companies, causing some strong feelings among natural food lovers and dairy consumers alike. But before jumping to any conclusions of “another sell-out,” be aware that a meaningful succession plan is not an easy feat.
Good succession plans are desperately needed in our food industry. Many of us who started the “natural food movement” in the 1970s are close to retirement age. In Northern California, we are fortunate to have a business culture and a consumer base that rewards producers who emphasize integrity and quality. It is very important that we continue our efforts to make pure, wholesome and organic food more accessible and affordable throughout the United States.
To bring the food companies we have started to the next level, we need to implement the best technologies, operational processes and business practices. This not only takes money and know-how, but also shared values and vision.
This is why I am entirely confident that Emmi is the right choice for Redwood Hill’s future. It is a relationship of trust and I feel completely aligned with their very high standards for quality, their strong emphasis on people and their commitment to sustainability. They also make unbelievably good cheese. Perhaps most importantly, they have encouraged us to maintain the way we do business here at Redwood Hill. That’s why I will stay on for several years and my management team and all of my employees will remain in place.
As a part of my decision process, I consulted my dear friend and fellow goat cheese maker, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove, who sold her Humboldt County company to Emmi five years ago. She makes the beloved Humboldt Fog goat cheese and, just like me, she wanted to see the legacy of her company carry on, securing the jobs Cypress Grove provides in her community while remaining involved.
Since the acquisition, Emmi has made strategic infrastructure investments in Cypress Grove, building a state-of-the-art creamery and showcase dairy. Mary and her team continue to run their business with autonomy, tapping Emmi’s expertise only when they need it. And, they have increased their workforce by more than a dozen employees, creating much needed jobs for the Humboldt County community. Mary’s experience further proves to me that Redwood Hill and our community will greatly benefit from Emmi’s tremendous expertise, business know-how and resources.
In a few years, I will be ready to retire from day-to-day operations. Without a doubt, I will be involved with Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in some capacity; in cheesemaking or as a strategic advisor and spokesperson, but I will be free of the weighty responsibility of managing it all.
I need this freedom because, deep down, I am a farmer. What I want more than anything is to spend more time with my goats, these smart and charming animals that I fell in love with as a child during my 4-H projects. I want to milk them a few times a week. I want to feed the kids and trim their hoofs with my own hands. I want to load them up on the truck, bring them on the road to show them at fairs and watch others fall in love with them as I did. For me, it has always been about spending most of my day with goats – and so my life will come full circle.
My retirement plans also include the diversification of my farm, growing more drought-resistant Tagasaste feed for the goats, planting more varieties of apples in the orchard for cider production, tending to the olive orchard and oil production, and adding more beehives.
Many of you have heard me say: “Redwood Hill Farm is a 4-H project that went out of control” and this is true. In the very beginning we made goat cheese and yogurt in our kitchen to have an outlet for the milk, so we could have more and more goats. It wasn’t always easy to promote goat milk products, but today it has become a staple for many families. It is gratifying to see this change during my lifetime.
Going through this process has reminded me just how important it is to look toward the next generation of farmers and cheesemakers; they need our support. In the years to come, when I am not busy with the farm and community work, I want to be a resource and mentor to young, new farmers and beginning cheesemakers to help them advance their businesses. I hope that they can learn a thing or two from me.
With this succession plan, Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery begins its new chapter. I invite you to embrace this change with me.
If you have any questions, concerns or thoughts on this, please send them in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org – I would love to hear from you.