Written & Photographed by Felicia Friesema
Chicago millionaires swooped in, in the late 1800s, building stately mansions along Mariposa Street. Frontier adventure author Zane Grey bought and remodeled one of those estates in 1918, which his son then sold to the Rudicel family in 1970. That’s where the history lesson ends and the birth of Los Angeles County’s first new dairy in over a century begins.
Stephen Rudicel and his partner, Gloria Putnam, have transformed the Zane Grey Estate into a modern, community-oriented urban agriculture learning center in the heart of a thriving, homestead-friendly unincorporated town. The main teachers are the goats—unsurprising once you’ve met them—which provide unsolicited lessons in patience, community health, generosity, neighborhood relations, play and, sometimes, death.
The gateway drug of the homestead set is the now ubiquitous flock of chickens. That was what Rudicel and Putnam had actually intended. After resettling into the Zane Grey Estate (both had been living in Pomona) they began transforming the estate’s grounds—dominated by compacted, clay-heavy soil—into a lush oasis of free-seeding kales, artichokes and wild greens. The chicken coop was intended to be the next step, providing both eggs and a way to recycle some of the garden waste and close an environmental loop. “It was a Christmas gift for Gloria,” admitted Rudicel. “And it’s weird: Usually people start [with chickens] and then, depending on their situation, will graduate to larger livestock. We went at it a little backwards.”
It would be easy to write off this kind of decision as impulsive except that Putnam is an avid researcher with a passion for making things work. It’s the least she could do, she feels, for animals that give back so generously to her busy life, which includes a career that often has her traveling around the world.
“I just do this because I like goats,” said Putnam. “For me, I like spending time with these animals and having a relationship that’s productive. You could just have a dog. But here, I’m saying, ‘I’m going to take care of you and you’re going to give me amazing food.’ That’s an amazing relationship to have with an animal. It’s so grounding and so relaxing. I could probably just live on their kisses and milk.”
Rudicel, owner and chef of the Claremont restaurant The Press, has his own priorities. Ultimately the importance of having fresh, accountable dairy at home was a big driver. Both he and Putnam have worked long hours mastering the art and science behind farmstead cheeses and home dairy craft, taking the Dairy Science and Technology for the Farmstead/Artisan Cheesemaker intensive at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The result? Both have unintentionally become Los Angeles’ de facto home dairy experts for info on how to get—forgive the rustic cliché—from teat to table. Classes offered in their milk room—a large converted photo studio—via the Institute for Domestic Technology sold out quickly. And even though a large portion of their syllabus covers goat milk products, they don’t use their own herd’s milk, as it’s raw and unpasteurized. “Part of the point of the class is to teach people how to make cheese at home,” said Putnam. “So we talk a lot about how to select milk to buy in the store so you can get a great result in your cheese. So we really focus on commercially available milks and on how to judge what milk is best.”
“There is nothing profitable about what we’re doing,” admitted Putnam. “Even if we could sell our milk or cheese, it wouldn’t be profitable. “Part of the reason it’s not economically viable is also because of the choices we make. We have a lot of goats out there that aren’t contributing to the dairy and that [in most other operations] would be sausage but we’re keeping them as pets. That’s about $300 a month being spent to sustain animals not contributing to the dairy. “Also, in an environment where you are paying for your hay and in a small amount of space, it’s the most expensive milk. We’ve never sold it, but once out of curiosity we priced it out and came up with around $20 a gallon. And it’s almost all just hay.”
Commercial viability not only requires more space but also the highly coveted A-2 agriculture zoning (the estate is R-1 residential). Along with smoothing the way for commercial milk and cheese production, an A-2 farm would erase another key challenge for urban farmers: neighbor relations.
“We choose to let the babies nurse until they decide to stop,” said Putnam. “We don’t wean the babies or intervene. Which means they are drinking that milk for six months. That’s not done in a commercial dairy. And part of the reason we do that is noise. And I think we would choose to do the weaning if we could control the noise, but weaning is very loud. The babies cry. The mother cries for the babies. It’s maybe only for a few days but it’s painful to hear. So we’ve decided not to wean to control noise and be good neighbors. This is another issue with urban agriculture viability. We’re so close to neighbors that it’s a huge issue.”
The land issue was initially seen as a far-off solution. Maybe someday when they retired, they’d buy land and set up shop with a larger herd and proper cheese room. But the itch to see her goats thrive in a more natural setting, living a more natural goat life, pushed her into an intense land search. She and Rudicel finally settled on a 70-acre property off Angeles Crest Highway.
“I was getting really interested in getting the goats to forage more naturally,” said Putnam. “They really want to eat trees. They don’t want to eat hay. They do fine on hay but they really want to get more exercise. Climb around on rocky soil. And eat trees, all different kinds. I want to see them do that. I want to see animals live that life. That’s what drives me to Angeles Crest. But watching Mint [one of their goats] run up to an oak tree and then run back down to head-butt me, that’s what I want. The milk, for me, is secondary.” For Rudicel, in true chef fashion, it’s all about the cheese.
“I remember the night it occurred to me that a dairy herd the size of what we were talking about could potentially supply two restaurants,” said Rudicel, referring to The Press in Claremont and another restaurant they have planned for the Altadena community on Lake Avenue. “And that we could close that whole loop and make this incredible food model.”
“I’m also really excited to make seasonal cheese,” he said. “Like alpine cheeses, where you drive your herd to graze in spring and then age [the cheese] until fall so you can re-taste springtime months later. That’s not possible with the controlled hay feeding we do now. The product is more consistent, but it also doesn’t ever change.”
For now, the classes—both in cheese making and goat keeping, as well as bread baking and other food crafts—continue at the Zane Grey Estate. Classes book up fast, so early reservations