With the fat orange sun shimmering its way over Thompson’s Mountain, promising a June scorcher in Stuart, Va., Leia kicks impatiently at the bucket that milker David Wallace is trying to attach to her udder. When she knocks it away, Wallace tries again. The machine hisses to life; Leia kicks it back off. Wallace sighs and starts over.
Milking a jumpy water buffalo is not for the impatient. It has taken months of persistence for Wallace and his buffaloes at Mulberry Farm to reach an understanding. On this particular morning, Leia gives him three pints of thick, rich buffalo milk. The other member of the milking herd, Regina, is gentler and more generous: six pints.
“I’m happy with that,” Wallace remarks, scrubbing down the milking equipment. “That was a really easy morning, by the way.”
In the eight months since, things have continued to improve. The milking herd grew to four buffalo. Before they went on pregnancy hiatus (they’ll return to the milking parlor after their calves are born in the spring), Wallace was bringing in well over 30 pints a day.
Call it a vindication of persistence. Back in fall 2014, when he first tried to milk Leia, Wallace came up empty, bruised and wondering, not for the last time, whether all of this had been a very bad call.
A decade or so ago, David and his wife, Liisa (that’s a Finnish spelling), were home in England, running a scuba business on the Dorset coast. They dreamed of retiring to a country spread, to a quiet home surrounded by acres of serenity. They loved England, but land prices were out of reach.
Acreage comes cheaper in Patrick County, Va., down at the quiet, undulating intersection of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the North Carolina line. Liisa’s brother lives there, and the Wallaces, both 51 now, had become familiar with the place during periodic visits. In 2009, when a 100-acre Patrick County farm came on the market, they put their dream plan into action.
First, they built a super-efficient home on a hillside above the pastures and barns. Then they began chipping away at the trickier task of putting their 100 acres to work for them. To pull it off, they pinned their hopes on the water buffalo.
Travis Bunn remembers the day he got the message from the Wallaces. As an extension agent in Patrick County, he’d heard weird stuff before. Sometimes someone inherits some land, sees a cute farm animal in a magazine and comes to Bunn for help with chasing whimsy. “I honest-to-goodness thought that’s what this was,” he recalls.
Water buffalo? He put the message at the bottom of his stack, to return to after he’d taken care of all his serious business.
As it turned out, his assumptions proved wrong. Before their scuba days, both Wallaces had worked in the white-collar business world. Liisa, a self-described “compulsive spreadsheet person,” and David had put together a plan that won Bunn’s admiration.
“They’ve gone about it the best way they possibly can,” he says.
Buffalo meat (water buffalo meat, that is — entirely different from bison meat, sometimes also called “buffalo meat”) is the bread-and-butter bit of the Wallaces’ plan. They slaughter one animal a month, giving them about 500 pounds of meat that fetches an average of $10 per pound. That covers expenses on Mulberry Farm. To carry them into the black, the Wallaces’ plan calls for something more upscale yet: buffalo mozzarella.
Buffalo mozzarella is, in fact, the original mozzarella, developed nearly a millennium ago when farmers in central and southern Italy first began raising water buffalo. Although Italy still churns out tens of thousands of tons of this mozzarella di bufala each year, nearly all mozzarella in the United States comes from cow milk.
“They’re just two different products,” says Justin Owens, a “curd nerd” and butcher at Society Fair in Alexandria.
Though he gets inquiries from customers who, like him, love the “creamy” and “luscious” richness of buffalo mozzarella, Owens doesn’t carry imported varieties from Italy. He is holding out for a good domestic one, which he’s confident would move off his shelves.
According to their spreadsheet plan, David figures to eventually milk around a dozen buffalo, giving Liisa — the primary cheesemaker — enough for around 10 pounds of cheese a day. Their market research has them confident they’ll sell their mozzarella at $25 a pound, and aged cheeses for even more. All of it goes in the profit column.
“The demand for the cheese is certainly there, even at that price,” David says.
Go ahead, get out a calculator. On paper, it looks pretty darn good.
Understatement: Farming in real life is harder than farming with spreadsheets.
Confounding variable: Farming in real life is particularly hard when you’re farming water buffalo, a bovine animal that looks like a bigger, bigger-horned, dark version of a cow. Raised by the tens of millions in Asia, where it was first domesticated thousands of years ago, the water buffalo is little more than a curiosity in America.
Thomas Olson, president of the American Water Buffalo Association, guesses there are 6,000 to 8,000 water buffalo, total, in the United States, scattered across somewhere between 25 and 100 farms. (Olson has raised water buffalo for 30 years in Texarkana, Ark., and is basically the éminence grise of U.S. water buffalo husbandry; he cautions that these are fuzzy numbers.)
Water buffalo dairies are certainly exceedingly rare. Including the Wallaces, Olson knows of just a handful of farmers in the country milking water buffalo, which yield significantly less milk than dairy cattle, with any sort of commercial intent. Practically speaking, that means the Wallaces can’t just call the farmer across the way for advice. There is no buffalo specialist at Virginia Tech.
So when Leia was beating David black and blue in the milking parlor in the early days, or when they started finding dead calves in the pasture, the Wallaces were forced to cast a wide net for solutions.
It was a particularly hardy type of grass, called Kentucky 31, that cost them six calves and presented the Wallaces with one of their biggest initial problems. Kentucky 31, the most widespread grass in Virginia pastures, has a downside: The symbiotic fungus that gives it resistance to drought and other stresses can threaten pregnancies and inflict other mischief on livestock.
Here, their solution involved pasture management, something the general Virginia farming community knows a great deal about. With the assistance of experts from Virginia Tech, David has embarked on a five-year process of methodically replacing Mulberry Farm’s Kentucky 31 with friendlier grasses.
The country’s few other water buffalo farmers have also been generously sharing their own hard-won tricks of the trade when questions have arisen.
“It’s going to be two decades before any of us are going to be competitive with each other, so we might as well work together,” says David.
Another major obstacle to the Wallaces’ buffalo dream has been the matter of actually making good buffalo mozzarella. On the June day of a reporter’s visit, for instance, something pH-related goes awry during pasteurization.
In the cheese room, a disappointed Liisa pulls apart a glob of prematurely curdled milk. David puts in a call to the equipment supplier. There would be no mozzarella di bufala this day. Liisa consults the cheesemaking book on the table. She decides to salt, press and age today’s attempt into some sort of experimental buffalo cheese: “a Mulberry Farm cheese,” she calls it.
Liisa has been pleased with the cow mozzarella she has made. She’s happy with the taste, though not the texture, of earlier buffalo mozzarella attempts. Today’s trial ended in error, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. At least there will be more milk tomorrow.
“It’s frustrating,” she says. “I know we’ll get there.”
Then, late last July, a breakthrough: After much fiddling, Liisa refined her cheesemaking processes to the mozzarella culture’s liking. (The culture has, she reports, “strong opinions on its preferred living conditions!”) The following Saturday brought the first validation of all the prior elbow grease, dreaming, spreadsheeting and cheese experimentation. The Wallaces took five pounds of buffalo mozzarella to the Cobblestone Farmers Market in Winston-Salem, N.C., and sold out in a half-hour.
By Thanksgiving, when Cobblestone, their primary sales venue, closed for the winter, Liisa was making about 30 pounds of cheese every week. About half of it was mozzarella (to make a pound of it, you need about six pounds of buffalo milk, which is richer than cow’s milk). Buffalo feta, another big seller, accounted for much of the rest.
It was a good fall at Mulberry Farm, and now the road ahead is looking better yet to the Wallaces. Around the time the farmer’s market opens in the spring, David will have his four buffalo back in the milking parlor. He plans to be milking six later in the year.
It took an enormous amount of work and trouble-shooting, but the Wallaces have more or less made it past what David calls a “huge, huge, huge learning curve.” Milking, not a battle of wills with a buffalo, has become his daily chore. Making cheese, not dairy alchemy, has become Liisa’s. Things are going according to the spreadsheet plan, and they’re starting to settle, thanks to the water buffalo, into the kind of life they’ve been long dreaming of.
For more information, and to inquire about online sales, visit Mulberry Farm online at mulberryfarmproduce.com.
Jenner writes frequently about farming. He lives in Brazil. Follow him on Twitter @_Andrew_Jenner_.