Where the (Water) Buffalo Roam

Ever wonder why the cheese is called buffalo mozzarella? Just ask Courtney and Brian Foley, who have brought a new twist to New Jersey ranching.

Photo by John and Saffron Bessler

In northwest Jersey’s Musconetcong River Valley, past the hand-painted sign that says “John Henry 1000 lb. PIG!” and down a narrow road between soybean and ryegrass fields, I turn into Riverine Ranch’s rocky driveway and spot my first water buffalo.

The critter doesn’t resemble the American buffalo like the ones I hunted in the classic Oregon Trail computer game: big brown beasts with broad shoulders, humped backs and long, shaggy faces. It turns out those iconic creatures are properly called bison. Water buffalo, on the other hand, are highly domesticated (for almost 5,000 years) and prized for their rich milk, which is used to create buffalo mozzarella cheese.

The animals raised by Courtney and Brian Foley at Riverine Ranch weigh in at 1,200 pounds and up and look more like furry black cows than bison. The one grazing beside their long driveway has curled horns and big-lashed eyes, which are fixed on my car. Actually, I think we’re making eye contact.

As I explore more of the ranch on foot, I get that same stare—curiosity, intensity and a little apprehension—from the other 80 buffalo in the Foleys’ herd. When we approach them, Brian says quietly, “We need to move slowly.”

Are they dangerous? No, but they might get scared and run away. All it takes to startle them is a new face, a change in routine, or even Brian wearing a jacket they haven’t seen before.

Brian approaches the herd, calling the big, docile creatures by name and patting snouts. Some have been with him for 10 years. It’s a bitter February morning, well past milking season (late April through early January), so today their day consists only of chewing hay, nibbling grass and slurping water from a trough. It’s a laid-back time for Brian and Courtney as well.

“If it were milking season, I couldn’t even be having this conversation with you,” Brian says. Things get manic in the warmer months, what with the cheese making, yogurt culturing and twice-a-day milkings.

I ask Brian how a union electrician became a buffalo whisperer, lining them up for milking, and selling their cheese and meat at farmers markets. He says it all goes back to Courtney, who declared at age 11 that she wanted to marry a farmer. Instead, she met the right guy and turned him into one.

Raised in the same town on Long Island, the Foleys, now in their 40s, met as children, then reconnected in their early 20s. They got married and lived and worked in Queens (Courtney was and is a teacher), but Courtney’s farm dream persisted. She still doesn’t know where it came from—she didn’t grow up near farms, much less know any farmers. “It’s just something I always wanted,” she says. “Fresh air, space and animals.”

In 2004, the Foleys bought a 7-acre property in Washington Township. They raised heirloom tomatoes, goats and sheep. Soon they realized that if they were going to make a go of farming, they needed something unique—a product that would set them apart at crowded farmers markets.

“Finally, we turned to each other and said, ‘Where does buffalo mozzarella come from?’” Courtney remembers. “We love cheese and wanted to find an animal to milk that was very efficient in converting grass to forage. Once we began learning about the water buffalo, we wondered why no one was doing this here.”

By here she means not only New Jersey, but the United States. There are only a handful of established water buffalo farms across the country. The Foleys assembled their herd with animals from Vermont and Texas, and in 2005, they found a stud bull in upstate New York.

“Tell her about his genetics,” Brian calls to Courtney.

Francis, an 1,800-pound bull who has now fathered more than 30 calves at Riverine, was “the product of artificial insemination,” Courtney says. The New York farm that supplied the stud bull bought buffalo semen from Italy—the undisputed capital of mozzarella di bufala—which in turn produced Francis.

“If you went over to Italy, they’d all look exactly like him,” she says of Francis, who paces around the ladies’ pen, a mountain of black fur and curled horns.

By 2009, the Foleys were up to 11 water buffalo, and their farm was getting crowded.

They began looking for a bigger place, but Jersey land was priced for flush developers, not fledgling farmers. “We were almost at our wits’ end,” Courtney says.
Their neighbor pointed out a local dairy farm in the town of Asbury that the New Jersey Conservation Foundation had purchased, preserved for agriculture and put up for sale. In 2010, the Foleys bought the 62-acre Warren County property for less than $400,000.

Ingrid Vandegaer, Highlands regional manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, says Courtney and Brian were the ideal buyers: younger than most New Jersey farmers, dedicated to their animals and focused on caring for the land. “They’re exactly what we’re looking for,” says Greg Romano, the foundation’s assistant director.

The Foleys have already built a soaring barn, a milking parlor and a creamery on their land. Brian takes me into that parlor, which I’d pictured as an ice cream shop. It’s actually a cement-floored space with a pit and six gated stalls.

When the buffalo come in for milking, they line up in the same order every day and even go to the same stall. The animals seem to follow some kind of pecking order, Brian explains; in some cases specific members of the herd simply like to stand next to each other.

“We want to make sure there’s no stress,” he says. “You have to really pamper them to an extent, and that’s what we do. And the milk is really good.”

A line runs directly from the milking parlor to a cheese vat in the creamery (also not an ice cream shop). On weekends, the Foleys spend hours peddling their buffalo cheeses and meats—and explaining their unique products—to shoppers at the Union Square and Sunnyside farmers markets in New York City.

Brian goes into some of that spiel now, noting that buffalo milk has more butterfat than cow’s milk, and therefore a richer taste. It’s higher in protein and lower in cholesterol, too. And it makes an extra-luscious cheese, which is why in Italy, the word mozzarella refers to the version made from buffalo milk.

The Foleys took several cheese-making classes so they could make the most of this magical milk. Mozzarella is a Riverine staple, but they’ve also whipped up yogurt, Brie, ricotta and labneh, a yogurt-based cheese.

Water buffalo meat, the Foleys point out, is quite healthy—low in fat and cholesterol. In fact, a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate water buffalo meat had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. I cooked some of Riverine’s ground buffalo meat at home—as burgers—and found it to be juicy but lean, with none of bison’s gaminess.

“I’ve heard some people say that it tastes how beef used to before everything was cornfed and genetically modified,” Courtney says. “It has a deep flavor, and it’s now the only meat we’ll eat.”

The Foleys sell the meat as dried jerky, plump Italian sausages, and all of the usual beef cuts: sirloin, brisket, flank steak, short rib and ground. The prices are similar to that of grass-fed beef, and Brian says the best cuts on beef cattle are also the most prized on buffalo.

Courtney admits at first it was tough to send their bulls to a slaughterhouse, “but the meat is so good,” adding, “and we are trying to start a business here.” About 24 males go for slaughter to Springfield Meat Company in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania, each year.

Brian says the male buffalo are raised just as comfortably as the ladies: minimal stress, plenty of head pats, unlimited grazing. “I think it’s important to give them all a very good life,” he says.

For now, the Foleys sell their buffalo products only at those two New York farmers markets. Brian is hoping to add some Jersey spots this year. (Prices for their products change seasonally.) He’d like to have an on-farm store eventually, too. For now, you can arrange a visit using the contact info on Riverine’s website.

The Foleys never pictured this buffalo-farming thing as a tourist draw, nor do they expect to get rich from it. They plan to cap their herd at about 70. “We want to stay small,” Courtney says. “We want to be sustainable.” And in the environmental sense, they are. The buffalo eat only grass and hay, and their manure is composted to fertilize new grass.

Courtney is still working as a fourth-grade teacher in Phillipsburg while the farm finds its footing. (They first started selling dairy products last year after several generations of breeding.) It’s not fully profitable yet, she adds, “but it will be. We see that light at the end of the tunnel.” They don’t have children, but Brian says he and Courtney daydream about passing on the farm to their nieces and nephews.

The Foleys believe they are the only farmers in New Jersey selling water buffalo products—but they wouldn’t mind having company. “We’re trying to spread the word that this is a great animal,” Courtney says. Water buffalo farms are so scarce that there are virtually no resources: no breed registry, no conventions, no local vets who’ve worked with the species before.

Courtney is hopeful that others will join in. “I can see this really growing,” she says. “If Italy can do it, why can’t we?”

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in Collingswood.

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