From their New Jersey farm, a former big-city couple have become enthusiastic advocates of water buffalo produce and discovered a lucrative business model in the process.
There’s a small buffalo revolution taking place in a corner of western New Jersey. Small because Riverine Ranch farmers Courtney and Brian Foley think they may be the only ones working with the animals in the state. But every movement has to start somewhere and the Foleys believe that water buffalo have the potential to transform NJ’s embattled dairy industry. For one, buffalo need less feed than cows and produce less whey waste product, making them kinder to the environment. Yet so ingrained is the bison in the US psyche – the mammal of big-sky country and the central plains – that people often assume the water buffalo is the same beast. “It’s a huge education process,” says Courtney. “We have to ask people, ‘Do you know buffalo mozzarella?’ And then they’re like, ‘Aaah!’”
The Foleys’ story is partly the age-old tale of urbanites who tired of the big smoke and decided to move to a farm. They may be ruddy, outdoor types these days but it wasn’t so long ago that they were living in Flushing, Queens – their thick accents still betray their NYC roots – working as a schoolteacher and an electrician respectively.
However, this story is also one of business acumen and plenty of homework. On their first New Jersey farm, which they moved to in 2004 (they’ve been on the current plot since 2011), they experimented with sheep, chickens, goats and tomatoes. But then they hit on an intriguing revelation: according to Courtney, seven out of 10 people who buy something at farmers’ markets buy cheese, one of the highest-priced products. Soon the pair settled on the idea of water buffalo. They found a farm in Vermont that was selling them and, after a research trip to Campania, the centre of Italy’s buffalo mozzarella industry, they also bought animals from Fort Worth, Texas.
Brian calls water buffalo milk “wonderful” and there’s definitely something different about its rich, nutty flavour. The Foleys want the US to know about it, slowly growing their herd of 130 and selling everything from buffalo mozzarella to labneh and a creamy brie-type number at farmers’ markets around New York. They supplement their income selling lean buffalo meat from the couple of animals they slaughter each month. Courtney says Union Square market, New York’s largest, “made” them. It’s a fertile testing ground for new products, the main source of their income and proof that people will pay decent prices for a quality product they’re not necessarily familiar with.
The couple follow the seasons, producing the bulk of their non-aged cheese between March and November when the grass is out. Nowadays they are looking to expand their 53-hectare Musconetcong River Valley farm. “When people at the market try a nine-month-aged buffalo cheese with a creamy centre, they always ask why no one else is doing it,” says Brian. Proof that the water buffalo can, in fact, become a cash cow.