The Cheese Stands Alone: Farmer Feature on Dee Harley
Award-Winning Goat Dairy Models Triple-Bottom-Line Sustainability
By Susan Ditz
Photography by William Milliot
One of farmer Dee Harley’s greatest joys is watching her herd of 200 American Alpine goats (and their guard llamas) foraging free and happy in the fresh green grass of the paddock beyond the 100-year-old Pescadero barn she restored.
Growing up in Yorkshire, England, Harley knew she wanted to be a farmer, but goats weren’t part of that vision. The picture changed 20 years ago while she was working at nearby Jacobs Farm and agreed to take in six goats for the winter. A quick study, Harley, who was pregnant at the time, learned how to milk, trim hooves and de-horn. In the process, she found her future.
Using a lot of sweat equity, ingenuity and creativity (and, as she is quick to note, with tremendous support from the community, her family and a dedicated staff), she has built a successful business that has earned a lot of accolades including a whole wall full of coveted American Cheese Society and World Cheese Show blue ribbons. She was the first woman to be honored as San Mateo County Farmer of the Year, as well as winning the Sustainable San Mateo County Award in 2008 and being named one of the Woman Entrepreneurs of the Year by the Women’s Initiative in 2011.
But the real rewards, she said, are the people who take the time to visit the farm, gain a new perspective, purchase something to savor from the cheese shop and “make a point to thank us for what we are doing. At the end of a difficult week, that positive feedback makes all the difference.”
Over the years, Harley Farms Goat Dairy has evolved into an agritourism mecca on the San Mateo coast. People come to the rural community in droves—directed to the only working dairy in the county by whimsical signs around town featuring a little girl with a goat, crafted by a local artist known as Three Finger Bil. Visitors experience the authentic daily rhythm of a working farm. They have the opportunity to make a connection with real food by learning about eco-friendly practices and how a gallon of milk from each goat per day is separated into curds and whey, and finally becomes a pound of cheese (at the height of the season they’re turning out 200 pounds a day).
Some of the best moments happen in spring, when kids interact with the new kids—an annual crop of adorable new babies whose antics provide delightful entertainment.
“We’re not educating, but rather inviting people to see what we’re doing in the intimate world of making their food,” Harley explained. “By coming here they can ask questions and gain a deeper understanding of the food system.” Visitors often wonder about the use of antibiotics, for example. “I tell them if we have a goat that’s sick, we’re going to give antibiotics, so she’s not sick anymore. Then we remove the goat from the herd and she’s not milked until the next season.”
In her typically candid way, Harley addresses the issue of organic certification. “I made a conscious choice early on not to get certified because the cost was prohibitive, the inspections and paperwork were very labor intensive and I don’t feel the need to prove how we farm, how we treat our animals and the people who work here.” Their management practices reflect a deep commitment to the environment, food safety and conservation of resources.
On this thriving farmstead, guests have the opportunity to savor intimate gourmet dinners in the barn loft featuring seasonal produce often grown on the farm. They can wander through the cheese shop tasting signature flower-covered chevre, fromage blanc, ricotta and feta cheeses, or sample a cornucopia of locally produced flavored olive oils, berry jams, goat milk beauty products, ravioli, honey and even fudge. Even the packaging makes a statement about what the Harley Farms brand represents.
In 2011, Harley decided to purchase the adjacent land and barn because the farm needed more room to expand. “Our herd is just the right size for our milking parlor and dairy capacity, but we needed to have space to make more cheese and offer more value-added products.”
The additional barn meant that “we were able to move equipment and our offices, and make a new nursery for the babies who come when the winter weather is really challenging,” she continued. “It took the pressure off the farm and now we have space for making aged cheese and a new mercantile area to sell practical items that complement what we do—objects of use, not gifts.”
The mercantile features “a new line of farm milk paint, a classic chalk and casein recipe that would have been made regularly on our dairy farm a century ago and is gentle enough to eat,” bronze and copper garden tools hand-crafted in Austria that repel snails and slugs, goat-wool socks, cheese knives with hand-turned handles made in Wales with stainless steel blades from Sheffield and beautiful English leather satchels.
After carefully examining a lot of business options over the years, Harley realized that to ensure the farm could sustain all the 22 people who make it run, and maintain a good work/life balance, she would have to keep it small and efficient. At the same time the team could continue to innovate and be genuine about it by offering more classes, tours, workshops and other special events, as well as expanding retail sales.
Teamwork on the farm is critical and she takes a lot of pride in the people who make the business run well, nourishing its success with a sense of commitment, integrity and imagination as well as a shared philosophy about being real and transparent.
“I try to live my values and the people who work here are of a similar mindset,” she said. “We’re very tight—we depend on each other. Everyone contributes and owns their space, is involved in the planning process and has the freedom to make decisions.”
Even when things are stressful, employees at Harley Farms are clearly happy, engaged and enthusiastic about their work—which says a lot about the leadership of the tall woman whose name is on every package. And it’s truly a family affair on the farm, sometimes multi-generational.
Pat Talbot, the current Pescadero High School principal, has been leading tours every Sunday on the farm for almost four years. “I look forward to working every week because it keeps me connected to nature and centered,” she said. “People feel good, they want to be there and hear the stories.”
Hiring local high school and special needs students is an important part of Harley’s interest in being an active participant in the community, which Talbot admires. Her daughters Chloe and Kassi and son Max have, in many ways, grown up there.
“She’s a mentor who sees potential, helps kids learn what hard work is and she encourages them to stretch and gain confidence,” Talbot said. “I appreciate all the discussions we’ve had about leadership because running a school is similar to running a business and Dee is a real visionary.”
Harley Farms Goat Dairy:
205 North St., Pescadero, CA 94060; 650.879.0480; HarleyFarms.com.
Farm and cheese shop open daily 10am–5pm, closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
In addition to the farm and online, goat cheese is available at Norm’s Market in Pescadero; New Leaf Market in Half Moon Bay and Westside Santa Cruz; Robert’s Market in Woodside; and Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park.