Water Buffalo Mystique
Water buffalo may bring to mind exotic locales, peasant farmers, and agrarian lifestyles, but in certain circles their products – especially buffalo mozzarella – bring top dollar to gourmet restaurants and grocers. In Ontario, water buffalo production is almost entirely run by immigrants.
This two-part article presents a basic overview of water buffalo production and reports on challenges and opportunities for this market. It addresses participant questions raised at the REAPontario OAFCDC workshop Ontario Association of Community Futures Development Corporations (OACFDC) Annual Conference.
Water buffalo primer
There are close to 175 million domestic water buffalo worldwide, and more human beings depend on them than on any other domestic animal. [source: Scherf, B. D., World watch list for domestic animal diversity, 3rd ed. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,2000, cited in Wikipedia, Water buffalo.] More than half of the world’s water buffalo population can be found in India, also the world’s largest producer of water buffalo milk, at 57 million tons per year.
Water buffalo are primarily known for their milk and to a lesser extent their meat which is less fatty and stronger in flavor compared to beef. Buffalo mozzarella cheese is more valuable than mozzarella made from cows. It is tastier and melts well on pizzas and in baking, contributing to its popularity in Italy and other countries. Any cheese made from buffalo milk will feature this prominently on the label.
Though they originally come from hot countries, water buffalo can live in most parts of the world as long as they have some protection from extreme temperatures, namely shade in summer and shelters in winter. With shelter from cold, they can live even in Canada’s far north.
Water buffalo in Ontario
In Ontario, the market is relatively small. The first animals were brought to Ontario only in 2007. Today there are at least six producers in Ontario with about 600 animals. Two of these farms have more than 200 animals each, and the other four are much smaller. The identified farms are owned by well-established immigrant farmers with German, Mennonite, and Italian backgrounds.
Even though the industry is not well known among the general public, supply cannot keep pace with demand. One of the markets is ethnic groups who bring to Canada knowledge of the great flavour of the cheese and meats. Today Ontario buffalo mozzarella is sold in gourmet grocery stores in the GTA and exported to New York and Italy.
Most of the operations in Ontario started with cows and transitioned to co-locating cows and water buffalo on the same farms. Raising the two animals requires a similar set up: barn, feeding and watering space, and grazing space. As the name implies, water buffalo love the water which also serves to regulate their body temperature. If no ponds or pools are around, they will dig to find it, so some farmers create artificial pools for the animals.
There is some opposition to expansion of water buffalo farms from cattle owners, but the scale is so small at this point that it has not created much tension. Also, most of the province’s water buffalo farmers own both cows and water buffalo and are scaling up the latter.
All Ontario water buffalo mozzarella is manufactured at Quality Cheese , a processing facility in Vaughan just north of Toronto. Frozen semen is imported from Italy and used for artificial insemination in the breeding process to improve genetic qualities of local animals.
In Ontario, some attempts have been made to market water buffalo sausages, but cheese has been the most successful. In other provinces and countries, milk and cheese are marketed along other dairy, including butter, curds, and yogurt. For example, one large operation in Quebec makes a very popular yogurt for export. British Columbia and Alberta also have water buffalo industries.
The challenging business of water buffalo
Esmira Latifova is likely the most knowledgeable person about Ontario’s water buffalo, and most of the information in this article comes from Latifova. She was contracted by the Ontario government to research the topic in 2013. Her research was presented to government and the private sector, but it has not been released in any public report. It does not appear that any changes to existing regulations over water buffalo have changed. Small farmers want to establish an association, but this has not happened yet.
The next blog post will highlight some of Latifova’s assessment of challenges and opportunities for this business in Ontario.
Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator