Two members of the herd pose at the ME Water Buffalo Co. in Appleton, considered to be the only water buffalo cheese-making company in New England. (Submitted photo)

Ten years ago, Jessica Farrar visited a farm outside of Augusta to buy a guinea pig for her son and unexpectedly fell in love with the farm’s lone water buffalo.

Deep, I-have-to-have-one, love.

“There was a connection,” said Farrar. “A lot of times, cows are aloof to people, they really don’t care if you’re there or not. This animal wanted to interact, kind of like a horse might do. Knowing eyes, curious eyes, thinking.”

After a few exploratory visits to a herd in Vermont, her husband, Brian, was in. First, they raised the animals for meat.

In 2013, they got to milking.

To her knowledge, ME Water Buffalo Co. in Appleton is the only water buffalo-based cheese-making company in all of New England.

And that makes sense. Maine’s a cheese hotbed.

Between 2004 and 2018, Maine grew from 16 licensed cheesemakers to 74, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Another 18 small dairy business licenses are pending approval. Some will say cheese, some won’t.

“Cheese is part science and part art, part magic,” said Jessie Dowling of Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield, president of the Maine Cheese Guild. “Each cheese maker kind of has a different style.”

There are so many, she said, in large part because Maine’s made it exceptionally easy.

“The requirements in our state are easier than any other state in the country; you need a little bit of money to get it started, but you don’t need $1 million,” said Dowling. “You go out of Maine and there is nobody middle class starting creameries, you have to be wealthy.

“Everywhere else in the country, you need a $50,000 machine just to start,” she said. “(Maine) does not require you to own a pasteurizer; it allows you to use a clock and a thermometer to test your temperature, so we’re able to make the same cheeses that everyone else is making but with a lot less expensive equipment.”

DACF spokesman John Bott said the department’s committed to helping people succeed.

“The phenomenal growth of artisanal cheese is an example of how we make it easier to start and grow a business,” he said. “Our employees help people just getting started, scaling up and accessing national markets when they are ready. Maine cheesemaking is also a bright spot in an otherwise severely challenged dairy industry.”

Lisa MacLeod started making goat cheese 15 years ago when her daughter was born with severe allergies. Goat cheese became a go-to protein — she even figured out how to sweeten plain chevre to use it as a frosting substitute on her daughter’s cakes.

“My biggest enjoyment out of all this is I’m capable and able to feed a whole host of people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to have any decent products in their diets,” said MacLeod, who owns Tourmaline Hill Farm in Greenwood with her husband, Dan. “None of us are rich, and it’s a lot of hard work, but it definitely keeps you honest.”

‘SOMETHING DELICIOUS’

Dowling at the Maine Cheese Guild said cheese here comes from four animals: Cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo. Maine has more cheesemaking women than men, many working solo, the majority overseeing their own herds.

The guild doesn’t yet have economic impact numbers; she’d love to someday. The state doesn’t track production and Maine doesn’t make enough for the National Agricultural Statistics Service to publish the stats.

“There’s (licensed cheese kitchens) that are super tiny — big enough for just one person to work in, where they’re just working over double-boiler pots — (and there’s) Pineland Farms that just moved up to Bangor that have vats the size of a gymnasium,” she said.

They sell direct to restaurants, at farmers’ markets, via websites, at farm stands, through community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures, and to large and small food chains.

Ask any cheesemaker and you’ll hear: It’s a lot of work.

“You have the livestock end of the responsibilities: A barn, barn cleaning and care and maintenance, feeding and milking, and every year there’s kids being born to renew the doe’s supply of milk, so you have birthing responsibilities including the complications that come with that, and then finding good, qualified homes for the kids so they can be well cared for,” said Julie Mannix at Old School Creamery in Harrison.

Then there’s, you know, actually making the cheese.

Generally speaking, roughly one gallon of milk makes one pound of cheese, according to Dowling. One batch can take six to 10 hours with cleanup. They make batches several times a week.

Mannix said she got into it six years ago because she enjoyed working with animals.

“One day may be a feta day and one day may be a yogurt day and there may be days I combine them, it just depends on how much milk I have and how quickly I have to process it,” she said. “I have a good, loyal following. I seem to move my product, so that’s good.”

Renee Igo learned everything she could about sheep through a World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms volunteer program for five years at A Wrinkle in Thyme farm in Sumner.

She took all that insight and started The Friendly Ewe in Hartford.

“I milked recreationally for three years, we just ate what I produced and experimented with a few cheese recipes,” Igo said. “My first outcomes were a little underwhelming — I was disappointed. You start out with two gallons of milk and then you end up with a tiny little ball of cheese, so I moved to ice cream. That was my first endeavor, because two gallons of milk, you freeze it, it expands to more than you started with, which is a way better business model, plus it has a super long shelf life.”

She had three milking Friesian sheep last year and made yogurt, feta- and chevre-style cheese and ice cream. Her sheep cheese was on the menu at Norway Brewing Co.

“Sheep’s milk has a super mild flavor; the biggest difference with sheep’s milk is it has a super high fat content, it’s really thick,” she said. “That’s why it’s especially good for cheese making.”

Demand for her products has so far outpaced supply. Next year, starting around March, she hopes to milk four sheep and grow her farm to 10 to 12 eventually.

She likes that in Maine there are enough people making sheep-milk cheese that for dairy inspectors she’s just another farm, not a novelty.

“They keep me busy and I do my part in actively improving both the ecosystem, adding to the agricultural landscape, investing in the economy in Hartford, which there’s not a lot of people doing that, also providing local food for people who would rather lower their carbon footprint,” Igo said.

All those things keep her at it, plus: “The cheese is delicious. I was sort of skeptical because I’m not working with fancy equipment, but it appears to me when you start with fresh local milk, it’s really hard to not make something delicious.”

SWEET TALKING BUFFALO

Farrar at ME Water Buffalo Co. said water buffalo milk is much higher in fat than cow’s milk, almost like half-and-half, and naturally a little sweeter. She makes several varieties of cheese including mozzarella, ricotta, buffeta (a buffalo feta) and a soft spreadable cheese.

There’s an art not only to making the cheese, but in her case, to getting the milk.

“We’d heard some horror stories about water buffalo,” Farrar said. “Some farms were getting feral water buffalo and trying to milk them, and water buffalo, you have to invest in them emotionally in order for them to release their milk. They’re not like a cow, they don’t keep a large reserve of milk, you have to make them actually want to release it, which gets tricky.”

Think petting, coddling, lots of nice talk.

“You can’t just have anybody come in and help you milk,” Farrar said. “That buffalo needs to know who it is, because again, they need to feel comfortable.”

The farm sold its herd of 27 late last year and she hopes to be back up and milking in a new parlor with five girls in December.

Farrar said her husband works off the farm but pitches in, as do their three kids. Pre-love-at-first-sight, she’d been a homemaker and home-school teacher. Farming and cheesemaking were not in the grand plan.

“There’s just something about laying your head down at night completely exhausted and knowing that you did a really hard day’s work,” Farrar said. “You can feel good about it. Truly, the love that we get from the animals is pretty amazing also. But there’s definitely a passion and it’s burning in all of us. It wouldn’t be stopped, so we just figured we’d run with it. We’ve got water buffalo farming somehow in our blood.”

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The life and times (and afterlife) of Pablo the water buffalo

Jessica Farrar’s very first water buffalo, a Christmas gift the year she fell in love with the animals, was a calf named Pablo.

“It was like my dream, ‘OK, he’s going to plow up my garden, I can train him to ride him, pull a wagon,’” said Farrar.

But that wasn’t meant to be.

“Pablo ended up being a follower, not a leader,” she said. “He wouldn’t walk unless you were in front of him.”

Pablo also ended up being a very big boy, 2,200 pounds by the time he was 6.

“He ended up being bigger than any bulls we had, so he took dominance over the herd and he wouldn’t let the breeding bull near the girls,” said Farrar. “We were like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to make a choice.’ That was a tough decision, I definitely cried on that one. We either had to process Pablo or lose the business (ME Water Buffalo Co. in Appleton).”

So he’s gone, but not far.

“I have Pablo’s skull hanging on my wall in my living room,” said Farrar. “I got his hide tanned and at some point I am going to pursue getting a Pablo purse.”


Renee Igo and Holsteina, a 2018 lamb, at The Friendly Ewe creamery in Hartford. 

Want to spread some holiday cheese?

The Maine Cheese Festival drew more than 2,000 people to Wolfe’s Neck Farm in September, so many that the Maine Cheese Guild is looking for a larger venue for next year.

Don’t want to wait until then to meet a slew of cheesemakers? Then head to the Maine Cheese Guild Holiday Party at Spring Day Creamery in Durham on Sunday, Dec. 9, open to the public and starting at noon.

Every December, guild members come together, each having made cheese from the same recipe. This year it’s Époisses de Bourgogne.

The fun’s in the sampling and tasting the differences, said Guild President Jessie Dowling.

“It’s not about proprietary information; it’s as if you have painters, and the way you’re going to hold a brush and see an image and put it to a page,” she said. “You’re never going to get that same image (even though) everybody’s painting the same thing. Just like cheese makers, we all kind of have our own style and it becomes our signature.

“It has to do with what the animal’s eating, what time of year it is, what stage the dairy animal is in its lactation, whether it’s just had a baby or been milking for 10 months and ready to dry off — the milk completely changes over that time period, but it also changes depending on what type of cheese you’re making, what types of cultures and ripening molds you’re going to be using,” said Dowling.

The Friendly Ewe’s feta cheese. (Submitted photo)

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