Dee Harley turned a “derelict mess” into a thriving Peninsula tourist destination. Now if she can just keep the masses out of her kitchen.
In the 108-year-old hayloft at Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, there’s a hand-made wooden chair with its seat carved to perfectly fit farm owner Dee Harley’s butt. “Three Finger Bill made it for me because I was pregnant with Ben,” Dee says fondly. It was supposed to be a rocking chair, but Bill got cross and never finished it.
Like the chair — its wood worn smooth by thousands of visitors — Harley Farms is a deeply personal creation that Dee has chosen to share with the masses. The 160 goats who live there comprise the county’s only surviving dairy, and the award-winning cheeses they make bring people from around the world to their doorstep. Whether it’s chefs smelling the goat-cheese painted walls of the shop or locals clamoring to hold one of the 300 baby goats delivered every spring, Harley Farms is accustomed to attention.
But Dee often wrestles with her decision to bring a thousand visitors per week to a farmstead she originally created to thrive in the blissful solitude of nature. The accessibility that keeps her business afloat can crowd the quiet country road she fell in love with and overwhelm her family and employees. For the first time since the farm’s inception, Dee recently cut back business hours in the farm shop from seven days a week to just three. It’s part of an ever-evolving effort to weigh the benefits of a public presence against privacy needed to run a working farm.
Tourists in her kitchen
Although Dee led tours with enthusiasm in the early days, the relentless stream of visitors inevitably began to take its toll.
“When she first started,” says family friend David Hope, “people would walk into [Dee’s] house, and open her door into her kitchen while she was eating dinner, and be like, ‘Hey, what’s goin’ on? Can we see some goats?’”
The dynamic became even more difficult to reconcile as time went on, because at her core, Dee’s not a tour guide or a public liaison or a marketing specialist — she’s a farmer, and always has been, really.
When growing up in rural Yorkshire, England, surrounded by fields, Dee was perpetually climbing trees or playing sports — anything, she says, to be outside. Her mother distinctly remembers a career aptitude test Dee completed as a child. The top result for her future occupation? Farmer. “I think I always knew I would be [a farmer],” says Dee, “because I was always like, oh, look at that field, or, look at the tractor, you know? I was attracted to the space — open space.”
Ultimately, she’s devoted her life to the outdoors. After leaving school at 16 and venturing to Honduras, the San Juan Islands, and down the Pacific Northwest coast, she found the rolling hills of Pescadero to be uniquely familiar. “The landscape around Pescadero is very English. It’s very rural,” Dee said in an interview in 2009. “There’s a reason people choose to live in a place like this, and I connect with that reason.”
She embraced the small town immediately and began working odd jobs for eccentric local woodworker Three Finger Bill. In 1988, she moved to a nine-acre farm just a mile outside the center of town with her husband, Tim Duarte (a notable figure in the community because of his family’s restaurant, Duarte’s Tavern). Things took a turn when Santa Cruz dairy farmer Nancy Gaffney stopped by the property to buy dried tomatoes. She saw the unused land, offered to sell Dee six of her dairy goats, and Dee quickly set to work turning the “derelict mess” of land she lived on into something productive. As she cleared the fields, repaired the barns, and started breeding the goats, passersby were intrigued. It was their curiosity that inspired Dee to invite visitors onto the property. Though she wanted to see life outside her window, she never imagined the farm would be a tourist destination for people from around the world.
Through years of trial and error, Dee and her team have learned how to manage the presence of visitors, but it was a constant challenge for her and her family, who all lived on the farm a stone’s throw from the crowds.
Even when she managed to keep people out of her dining room, Dee was often pushed to reconsider the trade-offs of her business model. “I had 60 baby goats stolen in the middle of the night about three years ago,” she said in 2009. “Opened the gate, drove a truck in — the whole thing . . . It was really violating to everybody, not just me.”
The public has always been essential to the farm’s viability, but constant visitors tax the goats and employees, which is why the shop is now closed Monday through Thursday. With four days a week to trim hooves, repair fences, and make award-winning cheese without distraction, the Harley Farms team has some much-needed room to breathe — to just be farmers again.
Goats and guts
Although Dee now feels more in control of the farm’s relationship with the public, the novel approach to accessibility continues to unearth new challenges.
“They kind of don’t know what to do with us,” Dee says of the eight different government agencies charged to make sure her business stays sanitary and safe while producing its cheese alongside thousands of guests. No other farm she knows of gives the public such extensive access to its operation, which means the rules — and expensive permits — often surface as they go. “There’s been part of me that’s been very annoyed and bitter, because I’ve had to take so much financial resource out of the farm to be able to have the luxury of people to come and experience it.”
Rather than budgeting for permits, Dee would prefer to invest in repairing old barns, completing irrigation projects, or better supporting her team, some of whom live on the farm. In fact, in a characteristically innovative move, Dee and her husband house nearly half of the farm’s employees on their large property to compensate for the Bay Area’s high cost of living. Her concern for her team is, in part, why she’s adamant about keeping the business small, even if it means sacrificing some privacy. It may be unusual, but Dee is used to being a trailblazer.
“I kind of look at her as a leader within the community — especially the agricultural community,” says her son, Ben, now in college working toward his Bachelor of Science in Organic Agriculture Systems. In a field dominated by male crop producers, a woman who’d dropped out of high school starting a goat dairy inspired some curiosity (if not outright skepticism). “I think that takes a lot of guts,” says Ben, “and I think it takes a lot of motivation to do that — to leave where you’re from and create something out of really nothing.”
It’s taken 26 years, but Dee has finally managed to strike a balance that works for the family members, employees, and goats who call Harley Farms home, and to her, it seems, that’s more valuable than any profits made selling cheese. “You have to constantly question — I think that’s important — is it worth it? And to me, it still is worth it.”
Harley Farms is located in Pescadero (205 North Street) off of Highway 1.
Farm & Cheese Shop open Friday-Sunday, 11 am-4 pm