Penny Royal Farm

Welcome back dear reader.  

Last week in honor of Alice’s birthday we offered to give her a brief vacation from blog writing and provide her with a copy about our sustainable studies on Laucala Island in Fiji.  Alice’s stepmum Samantha led the charge on that initial installment about the animal husbandry and amazing food we encountered, and Alice’s dad (yours truly) was tasked with the follow up article this week to cover the related Fijian organic gardens and hydroponic facilities.  But suffice to say that the prior week’s article was a hard act to follow, and other than listing some of the numerous spices, fruits, herbs and vegetables that Laucala Island produced (for example, vanilla, pepper, tropical fruits, a wide variety of herbs, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, zucchini, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, okra, and string beans) there was little left to add.

My deadline came and went last week, and I feared that I was failing to be a good role model for Alice.  After encouraging her to write a weekly blog during her travels even when it was often tough to find the time and material, how could I ignore my obligations the one time I offered to fill in for her!  While struggling with all this, I spent a rainy weekend in Anderson Valley in Mendocino County with Samantha and Alice’s 11 year old brother Jack as well as a couple of his friends from school. On our way home to Berkeley we had scheduled a farm tour at Pennyroyal Farm in Boonville thinking it would be a good diversion for the kids.  As soon as the tour started I realized this could be my lifeline of material needed for Alice’s blog!

Pennyroyal Farm is a charming farmstead at the inland entry to Anderson Valley in Mendocino. pr sheeps Pennyroyal has for years been famous for its delectable cheeses that are made on site with milk sourced solely from the farm’s own approximately 100 goats, 25 sheep and small handful of cows.  The farm also contains 23 acres of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir vineyards, from which they produce lovely little wines. In addition they have a small garden from which the on-site chef Elizabeth “Izzy” Leas concocts extraordinary farm to table creations to pair with the farm’s cheeses and wines.

Pennyroyal Farm has a byline on its website: “Where Everything Becomes Something Else”.  The byline is not alluding to some topsy turvy world of Alice in Wonderland but rather to Pennyroyal’s closed loop system of sustainable symbiotics.  They endeavor on every level to minimize external inputs and maximize local repurposing of internal byproducts. pr goatsSo, for example, with 23 acres of vineyards, Pennyroyal determined that the optimal number of dairy animals would be approximately 130 goats, sheep and cows, since the fertilizer produced by that number of animals would be precisely the right amount to fertilize 23 acres of grapevines.  No need to purchase or dispose of extra compost. Similarly the wool and hair from the animals is deployed to give the vines and garden additional nutrients. The sheep also like to pull the suckers off the vines, avoiding the need for hand pruning down low to the ground, while the goats keep the weeds and grass all over the vineyard nice and trim. As with their agricultural techniques, Pennyroyal tries to keep their employment model closed looped.  Unlike many farms, they do not use a migrant labor program, preferring to keep a highly skilled full time staff of employees (with full benefits). These employees not only harvest the crops and manage the animals, vines and gardens, but they also are capable of building and maintaining all of the systems, structures and facilities required on a complex farmstead such as Pennyroyal.


In the Pennyroyal garden, no-till farming techniques focus on maintaining nutrient fixing ground cover together with harvestable crops and minimal soil disruption. Constant production requires a high amount of soil nutrient input. Integrating farmstead compost is an important part of the soil amendment regime.  On a cold January afternoon the garden was lush with winter vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, kale, lettuce, cabbage, fava beans and brussel sprouts. Many of these were on display in our delicious salad served for lunch outside next to the vineyard.

But the most fun on the farm tour was shared when we were taken to “meet the ladies”.  The 100 or so resident goats are the real celebrities of Pennyroyal.

pr goat 3
Sassy Goat

(They each have names, and in the tasting room there are even portrait postcards of dozens of individual goats for purchase.)  After a quick introduction to the very sterile (literally) cheese making facilities, we finally were led out to the barn where the herd awaited us.

It turns out that goats are socially a bit like teenage humans in high school.  They tend to create “peer groups” of approximately 36 animals. The goats in a peer group hang out together and often do not get along well with goats in the other peer groups.  Each peer group has its own internal hierarchy. They are generally kept in separate areas or pastures, where they spend most of their time eating. To protect the goats and sheep from predators (coyotes and mountain lions primarily), the farm also keeps a guard dog (Gracie the Great Pyrenees) as well as a guard llama!

At the time of our visit, the goats and sheep were on maternity leave from their usual milking duties.  The animals (particularly the goats) all came across as charming, although some were almost diva like in their posturing and their sense of their own good looks.

pr goat 2
“I Want Scratches!!!”

Even with the many animals present, the barns smelled fresh like new hay. The goats and sheep were all very well behaved and friendly, munching on their lunch and gently seeking head scratches from us visitors.  These are happy animals. Even when they finish milk production after 10 years or so, they are given a lifetime of comfortable retirement on the farm as a reward for their youthful efforts.

When they are not on maternity leave, goat peer groups are milked separately from other peer groups each day in a parlor designed to hold and milk 36 goats simultaneously.  Every day the goats in the peer group enter through one of two ramps to the milking parlor and each enters one of the 36 stalls (each goat almost always chooses the same stall).

pennyroyal milking parlor
Milking Parlor

While being milked they are fed a “goat trail mix” of barley, corn, oats and molasses. The farm mixes the milk from their La Mancha, Nubian and several other goat species (together with sheep milk during the half of the year when the sheep are producing) to make their various delectable fresh and aged cheeses.

Next time you are heading up the coast in northern California, make a detour to stop in and try the bounty available at Pennyroyal.  You will be charmed and sated, and you will feel like you went back a century or more to see a type of diverse small sustainable farm that once was more common.  Hopefully Pennyroyal stands as a positive model for more small farms of the future.


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