When husband and wife duo Jessica and Brian Farrar started their farm, ME Water Buffalo Co., in 2009, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
After all, they never set out to be farmers.
“It was a very unlikely thing for us to do. I grew up on a farm, and I hated farming,” Jessica Farrar said. “I was scared of big animals.”
Jessica Farrar fell in love with the water buffalo during a chance encounter with the massive species while looking for a much smaller animal. The family went to a farm in Augusta to find a guinea pig for their youngest child. That farm also had a water buffalo. Jessica Farrar said she felt an instant connection to the “intelligent” and “seeking” creature and needed to find out more about them.
“If it was any other animal we wouldn’t do it,” said Brian Farrar, whose full-time job for the past two years has been working their Appleton-based water buffalo farm, the only farm north of New Jersey raising the animal. Nationwide, there are 5,000 water buffaloes being raised on about 20 farms that the Farrars know of, including their own.
In the seven years since the farm began, the Farrars have carved out a stronghold for their niche product, expanded their herd to 23 water buffaloes, opened a farm store, established a creamery, and now, they’re looking to double the size of their herd to meet growing demand.
“Now we’re at the turning point of looking for another farm to expand,” Jessica Farrar said.
From meat to cheese
With water buffalo being best known for the mozzarella cheese made from their milk, the Farrars said most people who want to raise water buffalo go straight to the dairy aspect.
But knowing nothing about the animals they’d become captivated by, they wanted to learn about the animal before they took on the difficult task of milking water buffalo.
“We were so unfamiliar with the process of milking and even how to handle these animals, so we didn’t even try,” Brian Farrar said.
After purchasing their initial stock of 10 water buffalo, the Farrars focused their attention on breeding the animals, using the males for meat and setting aside their females with the intention of milking them in the future. It was four years before they embarked on the creamery end of their business.
Female water buffaloes, which can weigh between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds, are not the easiest creatures to milk, in part due to the intelligence of the animal. For instance, if a female water buffalo does not feel comfortable with someone, it will refuse to let down its milk.
“Neither of us had milked anything in our lives,” Jessica Farrar said. “[The creamery] was always in the back of our minds, we had no idea how we were going to get there.”
To learn more about water buffaloes, Jessica Farrar said she dove into any research she could find that was published about the species and used that knowledge in conjunction with milking techniques used by traditional dairy farmers.
In 2013, ME Water Buffalo Co. became the first and only licensed creamery in the state producing dairy products from water buffalo milk. Jessica Farrar, with the help of her children, makes the cheeses and other dairy products the farm offers.
All of the water buffaloes the Farrars milk have been born on their farm. The Farrars said that taking the time to connect and build relationships with their animals made all the difference in getting the knack of milking, which they now do once per day.
“It was a good transition. We kind of worked our way into it and learned as we went,” Jessica Farrar said. “And now it’s like anything: Once you figure it out, it’s pretty easy and you get into a routine.”
Jessica Farrar said a water buffalo can produce 10 pounds of milk daily, which is less milk than cows produce. However, water buffalo milk yields twice as much product as cow’s milk, meaning the Farrars can make double the amount of cheese. With twice the fat content as cow’s milk, water buffaloes produce a rich, smooth milk that can be made into a variety of products.
The makeup of water buffaloes’ milk makes it optimal for fresh cheeses, Jessica Farrar said. The Farrars are presently making mozzarella cheese, feta cheese, a spreadable fromage blanc cheese, Greek-style yogurt and gelato.
While the availability of traditional cow cheeses and goat cheese may come to mind first when thinking about Maine’s locally produced cheese, Brian Farrar said they are working to change that.
“It’s a whole new product. When you think of Maine, hopefully you’re thinking of Maine water buffalo in the future,” Brian Farrar said.
Since starting the ME Water Buffalo Co., the Farrars said educating consumers has been a key part of promoting their product. Many people are not familiar with water buffaloes.
“It was a lot of us getting out there and talking to people. Farmers markets are fabulous for us because we can actually educate the customer, since [water buffalo] was not a normal thing,” Jessica Farrar said.
But once someone tastes their products, Jessica Farrar said the majority of folks are sold. During the summer, ME Water Buffalo Co. regularly attends farmers markets in Rockland, Union and Camden. Through the winter they’ll be selling at the indoor Belfast Farmer’s Market. This summer they opened their farm store, which is located next to their grazing field and barn in Appleton, and will be open Saturdays through the end of the year.
But Brian Farrar said the demand they are receiving is far greater than what they can produce with their current stock of water buffaloes. They’d like to begin introducing their product into the Portland and southern Maine markets but would need to increase their herd to about 50 water buffalos to do so.
“[Fifty water buffaloes] would be good for us as far to have enough for dairy, enough for meat, enough replacement stock and still be able to be small enough to keep it a family business,” Jessica Farrar said.
The Farrars anticipate they will be able to double the size of their herd within three years. However, with a larger herd, they’ll also need a larger barn, because water buffaloes must be inside during the winter. The present barn on Old County Road in Appleton reaches capacity at 30 water buffaloes, so they are working to find a second swath of farmland.
The farm and barn where currently ME Water Buffalo Co. resides, was formerly known as Stagecoach Farm, which was the farm Jessica Farrar grew up on. However, her father had stopped farming before the Farrars water buffalo endeavor.
Despite not expecting to wind up in the water buffalo business and the challenges they’ve faced in raising such an uncommon livestock, the Farrars are eager to move forward and to continue promoting the animals that have joined their family.
“Turns out we’re not so into guinea pigs,” Jessica Farrar joked. “But, yeah, water buffalo, they’re a passion.”