A Water Buffalo on Every Farm?
By: Beth Stickney
When David Muller founded the Woodstock Water Buffalo Company in 2002, he wasn’t sure whether Riverine water buffalo, indigenous to southeast Asia and imported to Italy in the seventh century, would survive the Vermont winter. No one in the United States – much less in chilly Vermont – had ever run a water buffalo dairy operation. But, Muller thought, if you can milk a Holstein up north, why not a water buffalo?
Muller had been a successful Boston entrepreneur, with advanced degrees in physics and business. He had co-founded Summit Technology, a firm that develops laser eye-surgery equipment. But he was also a lover of European artisanal cheeses, so he decided to go into business creating amozzarella di bufala comparable to the milky delicacy that is made in Italy with water buffalo milk, and that is prized for its fresh, slightly pungent flavor. Among others, he consulted with Paul Kindstedt, a dairy scientist specializing in cheese-making from the University of Vermont, and Vincenzo Ferraro, a mozzarella maker from the Caserta region of Italy. The state of Vermont backed Muller with an unprecedented million-dollar loan.
Today, the Woodstock Water Buffalo Company is the only domestic producer of buffalo mozzarella and sells premium, all-natural water buffalo yogurt to the popular Whole Foods chain and other stores. The company also works with some Vermont dairy farmers in a unique partnership that seeks to spread the profitability of the company.
“We're still small,” admits marketing director Carey Clifford. But she said the company is expected to double its herd in the next five years. It currently has more than 500 head of buffalo and 14 employees.
The production facility on the 250-acre East Woodstock farm is small and immaculate. Birthing and some milking takes place in the barn, where the all-female herd gathers to watch visitors with inquisitive eyes. The buffalo are hormone-free and are treated well; calves enjoy their hilltop view from a spacious pen.. Some of the staff have even given their favorite buffalo a thoughtfully chosen name, such as Vanessa or Brenda. And as it turns out, the curly-horned beasts do just fine in Vermont's climate, given their sturdy legs and hefty body weight: at 1,300 to 1,500 pounds, they are about the size of a mature Holstein.
But where are the males? They arrive via seasonal shipments of semen, much of it from Italian stock, and the herd is grown through artificial insemination.
While water buffalo do not produce as much milk as cows on a daily basis, the nutritional value and texture of buffalo milk adds up to premium prices, both for mozzarella and yogurt. Buffalo milk is higher in protein and calcium, and lower in cholesterol than cow's milk. It also has a higher fat content, giving the yogurt an appealing mouth feel – almost like ice cream.
On Mondays at Woodstock, a dozen or so workers – all in white, wearing sanitary head and foot gear – make cheese. The evolution of the six-ounceovalini balls and the bite-sized ciliegine can be a maddening process to observe, let alone try to control. As production manager Ellyn Ladd and her assistant tested the acidity levels of chunk after chunk of fresh curd on the day of my visit, I heard one of them mutter, “C'mon, a little black magic,” as if she were tossing a pair of dice.
When an acceptable pH was reached, one of the women did a stretch test, pulling on a small ball of mozzarella like a wad of taffy. From behind a plate-glass window, it was impossible for me to know what Ladd was saying as she hurled a stretch-test failure into the trash bin; I only knew that more curd would be tested and more cheese would be stretched before the whole lot would be loaded into the Italian-made stainless steel machinery that would pull and knead and stretch some more. When Ladd's eye judged that the time was right, the silky, shiny mass was taken from the mechanical arms and fed into the die, which pinched off the mozzarella and formed it into shapes as expertly, if not as colorfully, as an Italian farmer-cum-cheesemaker might.
My first taste of Woodstock’s small, thin-skinned, porcelain-white globe of mozzarella came in mid-April of this year, accompanied by humble companions: a store-bought tomato and a few leaves of hothouse basil. Even then, long before the warmest months of the year when people tend to eat mozzarella with basil and tomatoes, Woodstock's cheese reminded my palate of summer's promise. It also brought to mind a phrase from a passage in a D.H. Lawrence novel: within its milky white heart lurked the “dusky fecundity” of the barnyard. It had been a dreary week with not a hint of spring in the air, but after a sprinkle of sea salt, a turn of the peppermill, and a drizzle of olive oil offered in homage to the shaggy beasts of Woodstock, my family and I enjoyed a bit of sunny weather on our plates.
The mozzarella we tasted that evening was about five or six days old, which accounted for the ripe, of-the-soil finish on the palate. It had soaked in its briny bath long enough to become creamy while still retaining a slight firmness – one might almost say al dente or “to the tooth,” as with a perfectly cooked bite of pasta. Like any artisanal cheese, buffalo mozzarella is a living product and enzymatic activity continues throughout its recommended shelf-life of 21 days.
David Rachlin, Woodstock’s CEO, says he still enjoys the mozzarella a week or so past its prime, but getting it to market early enough in its short life-cycle to make it a viable retail product is tricky. “We've tried adding another culture to provide a longer shelf-life, but we just weren't happy with the taste,” he says.
Woodstock’s milky orbs of mozzarella float in briny pools in plastic containers, just as they are sold in Italy, and do not travel as well as the yogurt. Retail prices range from $5.99 to $7.99 for a six-ounce ovalini ball; the cheese sells mostly to small markets in the New England region and over the Internet via two-day or overnight shipping. Restaurants from Woodstock to Boston to New York have standing orders and demand is especially high in heirloom tomato season, which begins in June.
As for the yogurt, it is popular in local markets and ships nationwide; the six-ounce containers range in price from $1.39 to $1.79, depending on location. The company's products are sold as natural as opposed to organic because of the difficulty in finding plentiful sources of organic feed. Total sales for the company in 2006 were just under $1 million.
Muller's mozzarella daydream has certainly been successful, but from the outset it has been backed by a social mission. Early on in the venture, Muller reasoned that with all the dairy facilities in Vermont, many of them owned by struggling farm families, his new company could offer mutually beneficial partnerships to dairy farmers who would raise and milk some of Woodstock’s water buffaloes and eventually assume ownership of them. He decided to keep his own milking capacity small, and a unique business model was born.
Today, Woodstock provides two Vermont heifer growers and one dairy farmer with an economically sustainable way to remain in the dairy business.
“Five years from now, we should be well-positioned to help sustain several other family farms,” Rachlin says.
Beth Stickney is a freelance writer, college English instructor, and lapsed New Yorker. She lives with her husband and son in Bellows Falls.