Appleton farmers among few in nation to raise water buffalo

Posted June 21, 2011, at 11:38 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 10, 2011, at 2:37 p.m.
Animals at the ME Water Buffalo Co. farm in Appleton. Jessica and her husband Brian started the farm in 2008 and now sell meat at farmer's markets, restaurants and stores in the midcoast area.
Animals at the ME Water Buffalo Co. farm in Appleton. Jessica and her husband Brian started the farm in 2008 and now sell meat at farmer's markets, restaurants and stores in the midcoast area.
Jessica Farrar with her children (from left) Aidan, 10, Aniston, 5, and Aislinn, 7, at their Appleton water buffalo farm. Jessica and her husband Brian started the farm in 2008 and now sell meat at farmer's markets, restaurants and stores in the midcoast area.  "We would like to raise the number of the animals to about 30 so we can continue selling meat and start milking them as well," Jessica Farrar said.
Jessica Farrar with her children (from left) Aidan, 10, Aniston, 5, and Aislinn, 7, at their Appleton water buffalo farm. Jessica and her husband Brian started the farm in 2008 and now sell meat at farmer's markets, restaurants and stores in the midcoast area. "We would like to raise the number of the animals to about 30 so we can continue selling meat and start milking them as well," Jessica Farrar said.

Vern slowly shook his enormous horned head as he approached the metal fence that encircled his pasture. As the dominant male of the herd of Asian water buffalo that Jessica and Brian Farrar keep at Stage Coach Farm in Appleton, Vern, a huge bull, appeared accustomed to being the first to greet newcomers to his property. He stretched his neck over the fence to allow a head scratch between his glossy black horns, which span, tip to tip, more than three feet wide. Vera, Olive, Big Mama, Stink-Eye and the other members of the 17-strong buffalo herd would come next.

“They know when someone new is here,” said Jessica Farrar, who, with Brian and with her father, Al Green, care for the buffalo year-round. “They’re really very intelligent. They’re smarter than cattle. You can tell.”

Farrar’s assertion that water buffalo are more intelligent than their cattle counterparts is backed up by the American Water Buffalo Association. The creatures, which can weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds and can be up to 6 feet tall, are highly social and responsive to the human voice, and observe you with their large brown eyes with an intensity that cows do not have — at least, it appears that way.

On the surface, they aren’t vastly different from cattle. They’re both domesticated meat- and dairy-producing livestock, they eat mostly the same food, they both graze in pastures and they both use about same amount of space on a farm, though water buffalo can survive on far rougher terrain than cattle. The similarities end there, though. Their size, their sociability within the herd, their love of wallowing in the mud and the giant horns are just the beginning.

Since 2008, the Farrars, including their children Aidan, 10, Aislinn, 7, and Aniston, 5, have raised water buffalo on their farm, the only such farm north of New Jersey, and one of only a handful in the entire country. Jessica Farrar grew up on Stage Coach Farm, where her father raised cattle until relatively recently. She loved animals, and she and Brian are hardworking people. But working on a farm — let alone raising water buffalo — didn’t initially enter into the picture for her and her family.

“I grew up on this farm, and I never, ever wanted to live on a farm or farm at all,” said Jessica Farrar. “[Brian and I] went to a farm to get guinea pigs for the kids, and at this farm there was a water buffalo. I saw him and fell in love. I wanted one. My Dad got me a water buffalo calf, Pablo, for Christmas in 2008.”

In 2009, Brian and Jessica purchased some more buffalo from a now-defunct water buffalo farm in Vermont. Shortly after, they stumbled across Vern, then a young bull. Vern is now the big guy of the bunch and has fathered calves for three summers for the Farrars. The Farrars dubbed their new business venture the ME Water Buffalo Co.

In the winter, the buffalo hang out in their big barn, heating it with their bodies and further enhancing the close bonds within the herd. In the summer they lumber across the pastures, idly grazing — and on hot days they wallow in the mud pit, cooling off in the way that gives water buffalo their name. Green, Jessica’s father, can call the buffalo with a loud “Hey!” from several hundred feet away. They come trotting in, picking up a head of steam that reminds you that, despite their seeming gentleness, these are not animals to be trifled with.

Unlike their African cousins, Asian water buffalo are relatively docile, though before the Farrars installed a heavy-duty fence on their property, one of the big bulls managed to uproot and move an entire fence with just its huge head and horns. The Asian variety has been domesticated for thousands of years in India and Southeast Asia. It is celebrated yearly with festivals and races in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere. Over the centuries they have been imported to Australia, the Middle East, Italy and South America. There are millions of them across the world, and they remain an important source of protein and producer of milk in many Asian countries.

Despite their abundance in the East, water buffaloes are very uncommon in the U.S. According to Farrar, there are records of water buffaloes in the 19th century, but aside from that, there’s no documentation of any water buffalo in the U.S. until the mid-1970s, when a Florida university professor imported a handful. Most of the water buffalo living in the country are descended from that initial herd. There are currently approximately 5,000 water buffalo in the U.S.

The Farrars currently only sell buffalo meat, though in the next year or two they hope to purchase the machinery so they can milk their females and start making cheese and yogurt. Buffalo mozzarella is a prized commodity worldwide, and is coveted for its uniquely creamy texture — buffalo milk has a much higher butterfat content than cow’s milk. The meat bears a resemblance to beef, but is milder, more tender and much leaner.

“It has 32 percent less cholesterol, 93 percent less saturated fat and 55 percent less calories than beef. It has more protein, too,” said Jessica Farrar. “For someone who is on a diet that restricts them from having beef, they can definitely have water buffalo.”

Currently, they sell steaks, ground meat and sausage at Megunticook Market in Camden, the Belfast Co-op, farmers markets in Belfast, Damariscotta and Camden and at State of Maine Cheese Co. They also sell the meat to several area restaurants, including 57 Bayview Bar & Bistro in Camden, Newcastle Publick House in Newcastle and Sweet Season Farm and Country Cupboard in Washington. The meat is more expensive than beef, but then again, it’s grass-fed, pasture-raised water buffalo meat. It’s a unique treat.

Opting for a water buffalo farm is an interesting career choice for a young couple such as the Farrars, but twists and turns like that are what makes life interesting. Brian and Jessica wouldn’t trade their lives with Vern and the others for anything. They’re currently building a home just a stone’s throw down the road from her father’s farm so they can have their own space. The buffalo will split their time between the Farrars’ farm and Stagecoach Farm.

“Neither of us wanted to farm, but now we love every part of it. Brian and I sold our home in Union in order to be closer to the animals and not have to travel for chores. We bought some land near my father’s farm where we have built a new house,” said Jessica Farrar. “We have been very blessed to have our family involved in this with us … these animals are incredible.”

ME Water Buffalo Co. will celebrate Open Farm Day 10 a.m-2 p.m. Sunday, July 24, at their farm, located at 90 Old County Road in Appleton. To arrange to purchase meat from the Farrars, email mewaterbuffaloco@gmail.com.

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