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Dairy Substitute

Could Vermont's water-buffalo industry save our farms?


Published September 28, 2006 at 4:32 p.m.

Vern Berthiaume admits he was a little scared when 100 massive mud-brown creatures with gnarly horns moved into his dairy barn in Salisbury. On the Berthiaume Brothers farm, which has been in business for 48 years, they'd never milked anything but Holsteins. Now here he was, standing face to face with creatures more common to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia than to the dairy farms of Vermont.

Granted, there were advantages to the arrangement. Berthiaume's contract with Woodstock Water Buffalo Company owner David Muller made dairy farming about as risk-free as it can get. The company agreed to pay Berthiaume a daily fee per head, in return for feeding and milking the buffalo. For the first time, his monthly paycheck wouldn't depend on the going price of cow's milk - which has mostly been going down.

Six weeks after the first water-buffalo arrived, Berthiaume has changed his mind about the ferocious-looking beasts. "They're easier to work with than the Holsteins," he marvels. "They're like a bunch of big dogs. I sure didn't think they would be."

The arrangement between Woodstock Water Buffalo and Berthiaume is more than a contract between a struggling small-town farmer and a big-city entrepreneur with a plan for getting back to the land. It offers hope for financially strapped dairy farmers looking to stay in the game.

Berthiaume's situation was getting desperate when the Salisbury farmer saw an ad in the Addison Independent, recruiting dairy farmers to house water buffalo. "I was losing too much money on Holsteins," he says. "The price of milk had been way too low for way too long." He started asking around - financial people, friends, fellow farmers. He made several trips to the Star Hill Dairy in South Woodstock, where Muller's herd resides. Then he signed on.

"Other farmers thought I was nuts," Berthiaume remembers. "They told me to watch out. They wondered if I knew what I was getting into."

Muller of the Woodstock Water Buffalo Company didn't know at first what he was getting into, either. Equipped with a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell and two Master's degrees, he helmed the company that helped develop laser eye surgery and made enough money to "retire." In 2002, Muller began buying water buffalo off the range in Florida, Alabama and Texas and importing them to his vacation home in South Woodstock. At first, he was thinking in terms of a hobby - milking a few water buffalo and turning the milk into authentic Italian mozzarella di bufala. But for this man whose brain never seems to leave overdrive, hobbies have a way of becoming something more.

By 2003, the Woodstock Water Buffalo Company was shipping both the mozzarella and water-buffalo yogurt, and Muller's pet project got covered on National Public Radio and in the Los Angeles Times. The yogurt comes from a recipe Muller made up in his own kitchen; it's a rich, creamy concoction that comes in hip flavors like black currant and chai. It's so popular, says Kent Underwood, the dairy manager for Woodstock Water Buffalo, that projected sales for 2007 are in the neighborhood of $1 million. Ninety percent derives from yogurt sales, the rest from the specialty cheese. What's more, says Underwood, the company's growth rate is doubling each year.

Growth has always been part of Muller's long-term strategy. From the beginning, he talked about recruiting other farmers to raise and milk the water buffalo, thereby turning unused or underused barns back into functioning dairies. Muller hoped not only to create a steady supply of milk for his company, but also to keep farming viable in Vermont by preserving its infrastructure.

Already he's had three takers. Dennis Mueller, who manages what he calls a "heifer hotel" at Arnold Bay Farm in Panton, is raising 70 water-buffalo heifers for Woodstock Water Buffalo, along with another 500 Holstein heifers for other clients. He'll send the water buffalo back to Woodstock before they calve. In New Haven, Roger Stowe is caring for another 140 buffalo heifers.

So far, Berthiaume is the only farmer who's milking the buffalo. But Underwood says word of his success is prompting interest from other farmers. To feed and milk 100 buffalo, as stipulated by his agreement, Berthiaume has hired two former Woodstock Water Buffalo employees who know how to handle the animals. In return, he is paid $6 a head per day, and Woodstock sends a truck every other day to pick up the milk.

For Berthiaume, the beauty of the arrangement is not just the steady paycheck, but also the fact that buffalo consume about 21 fewer pounds of feed per day than a Holstein - and a lower-quality feed at that. The animals also live significantly longer than Holsteins. Water buffalo produce less milk than cows, an average of 10 pounds per day to the cow's 60. But water buffalo milk has about three times the butterfat and twice the protein of cow's milk, so the deal still works in Berthiaume's favor, he says. "The premium these guys are getting for their product benefits me in terms of what I can charge them for rent."

By 2010, Underwood says, "we'd like to be milking 1000 head" - a lot more than the 200 head being milked now in Woodstock and Salisbury. Thinking over the longer term, Underwood says that Muller "would love to see 50,000 water buffalo in Vermont someday." That's about one third the number of Holsteins the state has now.

Berthiaume's personal goal is to replace all his Holsteins with water buffalo; he could house about 400 in his barn. "I think it would be a winning proposition," he says. "Besides, I was getting bored with Holsteins. With them, it's a losing battle."