Go Buff for the afternoon at the Stirling Water Buffalo Festival

By Nancy Hopkins - Photography by Bill Bickle

FROM THE COUNTRY ROADS ARCHIVES - STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SUMMER 2009

More water buffalo are milked in Italy on a daily basis than cattle in Ontario.

More water buffalo are milked in Italy on a daily basis than cattle in Ontario.

Cathy and Dave Baynes, owners of the local La Dolce Vita Bed & Breakfast will both be on hand serving up their individual creations. The festival marries their love of cooking, and Cathy’s experience conducting Italian culinary classes and her proud Italian heritage. There will also be a taste of Provence, France with the talents of Chef Jean-Marc Salvagno from L’Auberge de France Bistro & Bakery in Belleville. Other acclaimed chefs will serve up offerings made from water buffalo cheese and possibly meat and a great array of produce from area farms.

The idea for the food festival is the brainchild of the town’s Economic Development Department and active Stirling Business Improvement Area members who wanted to share the new and exciting agricultural product local farmers Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith offer. In April of 2008 Littkemann and Smith became owners of their first herd of water buffalo when they purchased 40 from a farm in Vermont.

Italians have been using water buffalo milk for over 200 years for cheeses, ice cream and yogurt. In Italy approximately 300,000 water buffalo are milked daily compared to approximately 250,000 holsteins in Ontario. The worldwide population of the 74 different breeds of domestic water buffalo is estimated at about 165 million and they produce in the region of 15% of the world’s milk, primarily in Southeast Asia, South America and Italy. 

Stirling area farmer Martin Littkemann purchased his first herd of water buffalo in April 2008.

Stirling area farmer Martin Littkemann purchased his first herd of water buffalo in April 2008.

And yet, despite these numbers there are only a few water buffalo farms in Canada. In a round about way the first water buffalo farm established in British Columbia played a part in Littkemann and Smith starting their operation. Littkemann’s brother was affiliated with the cheese making company that processed the farm’s milk and he suggested to them it was something worth investigating. Another friend also mentioned the idea. But when Smith came across an article on the animals in a copy of Harrowsmith magazine she knew it was time they started to seriously investigate the possibility of farming water buffalo.

According to Littkemann the animals live and work worldwide from “the tip of Argentina to Denmark” so they knew they could survive Ontario weather. But with so few farms in Canada it was necessary to conduct hundreds of hours of research, contract the services of a consultant and take a trip to the World Buffalo Congress in Italy in 2007. When all was completed they made arrangements to purchase the Italian/American breed that they now farm. 

Today, milk from the Ontario Water Buffalo Farm Co. is shipped weekly to the Italian cheese-making company, Quality Cheeses in Toronto. With traditional pasta filata machines they in turn produce approximately 300 kilograms of mozzarella di bufala cheese. “Any cheese that you make from dairy milk can be made from water buffalo milk,” Littkemann says. So the recipes are endless. Smith says the ricotta makes very good cheesecake. 

The milk is very high in fat and protein. The butterfat ranges anywhere from 6 to 10% on individual animals. The milk is also easily digestible, especially for people with lactose intolerance and other dairy health-related issues. The meat is also a healthy alternative, as it is lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than beef. Visitors to the Stirling Water Buffalo Festival will have to sample their way through the foods to taste the difference.

Farming the animals is not unlike farming cattle, but there are differences. “While they’re hearty, they don’t have hair like a cow but rather bristle similar to a pig,” Littkemann explains. “They need some shelter in winter and in excess heat. They can’t stand the heat. If it’s too hot they don’t sweat and need extra water to keep cool.” 

True to their name they enjoy water and emerging from a large puddle dripping in mud from head to hoof is not an uncommon sight at the farm.

Lori Smith and one of their herd. Smith considers water buffalo to be animals of impressive intelligence.

Lori Smith and one of their herd. Smith considers water buffalo to be animals of impressive intelligence.

Smith regards the animals as “very intelligent” and “great creatures of habit. They go in the barn door the same way every day and come out the same way and it’s very difficult to get them through a different door. But you can retrain them.”

Smith also credits them with fantastic memories. “Generally, with strangers they will stay back, observe and take their time,” she says. “But we got some cattle last year and a couple of months ago the co-owner of the animals came for a visit. When they (the water buffalo) saw him they all ran to the fence friendly and personable and they followed him everywhere.”

And their movements differ slightly from cattle and require patience – which the farmers jokingly refer to as “buffalo time.” The animals don’t respond to being rounded up in the same manner that cattle do. Driving and the use of dogs won’t work. They need to be called and when one or two come the rest will follow, more like sheep than cattle.

The first calf was born last September and earned the farm the designation of the first milking water buffalo herd in Eastern Canada. Since then another 19 calves have been born, and they purchased an additional 10 bringing the herd to near 70. The animals have a lifespan of 20-25 years and are a little heavier than dairy cattle, weighing in the 1,000 to 2,000 lb. range. Their horns grow backwards in a crescent shape but Littkemann and Smith keep them clipped for safety reasons – both theirs and the animals’.

Farming an animal that enables the production of a made-in-Canada food that has previously had only limited availability is a source of pride for the farmers.

On August 29 festival-goers will have the chance to sample the unique flavours of water buffalo cheeses combined with locally grown produce blended by the hands of talented and innovative chefs. And the water buffalo themselves wouldn’t miss the event and will be downtown for visitors to see and touch and get to know. Organizers hope to have cheese available for sale.

Schedule a visit to the Stirling Water Buffalo festival and you’ll be able to say you experienced a true taste of Italy and did it in just one afternoon. Tickets for the gastronomic extravaganza will be $12 and attendees can sample any and all of the recipes from food stations set up throughout downtown Stirling. More information on the Ontario Water Buffalo Co. and other Hastings County farms can be found at www.harvesthastings.ca.   For additional information on the Stirling Water Buffalo 

Food Festival visit www.stirling-rawdon.com 

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