Reach the end of Jackson road in Duncan, on Vancouver Island, and all you can hear is the chirrup of frogs and the wind whistling in the trees.
Park your car and you might notice a group of water buffalo calves watching you skittishly from the shade, trying to decide if it’s safe to approach. Each one has a name, a distinct personality and large, gentle eyes that cautiously observe newcomers.
“They’re like dogs,” laughs Maryann Hartmann, 30, who works at Fairburn Farm’s Cowichan Buffalo Dairy with her husband, Brett, her brother, Richard Archer and her parents, Anthea and Darrel Archer.
Our overnight farm stay at Fairburn Farm was educational as well as enlightening, for it’s not often you get to see a working buffalo dairy farm in action while sleeping in a historic farmhouse filled with antique furniture and a rich history.
Life on the farm is a bustle of activity that starts in the early hours of the morning and continues until dark for the Archer and Hartmann families. There are guests coming and going, rhubarb banana bread baking in the oven, 60 buffaloes that need to be milked, petted and loved, and a relentless myriad of chores around the farm. It’s a labour of love keeping the 130-acre farm up, running and profitable.
Though things are looking good today, you never know what tomorrow might bring – particularly when you consider how yesterday looked – because the future wasn’t always as encouraging as it seems today.
In 2000, the Archer family imported a herd of Bulgarian Murrah water buffalo from Denmark, with the intention of starting Canada’s first buffalo dairy farm. Shortly after the buffalo arrived, a case of the bovine disease BSE – mad cow disease – was found in a cow in Denmark and the Archers received a letter from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to say their buffalo would need to be destroyed. The couple remembers being stunned. There had never been a case of BSE in water buffalo – ever. Determined to fight for the lives of their herd, the Archers embarked on a two-year legal battle with the CFIA. Their story hit the global news and donations from members of the public began pouring in.
Ultimately, all of their $80,000 legal fees were covered by those donations. But in July 2002, the entire herd was transported to Lethbridge, Alta. and destroyed, leaving only 30 calves on the farm.
“We had a call from one of the employees’ wives at the killing factory, who told us there was almost a mutiny when our buffalo arrived,” says Anthea Archer, still emotional about the loss. “They knew they were killing healthy animals. And when they checked [the buffalo’s] brains later, every one of them tested negative for BSE – something we had known all along.”
It was difficult to carry on, and they considered jumping ship and leaving the farm. But they say, when one door closes, another opens. The family rented out the farmhouse to an entrepreneur who ran a successful culinary school from 2002 until 2010. The Archers had secretly hoped that at least one of their children would step forward, bringing new blood to Fairburn Farm’s future. In 2011, their daughter Maryann did just that, joined by her husband, Brett Hartmann, a software developer eager to leave the office and to try something new. Her brother, Richard, joined them, too.
Today you’ll find the family up from the early hours of the morning, milking, cleaning up, preparing the farmhouse for guests, chopping firewood, and feeding the endearing water buffaloes, which enjoy a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the Archer and Hartmann families.
Treated more like pets than livestock, they relish a good scratch and compete for the attention of their favourite caregivers. Close to 2,000 pounds when they reach adulthood, visitors must maintain a healthy respect for their massive girth and sheer strength. You never turn your back on them, Hartmann says.
“You get your mean ones, your nice ones and those that are too friendly – just like humans,” she says. “Some get so relaxed when you scratch them, they just fall over. It’s hilarious to watch!”
In the milking parlour, the herd is milked six at a time under Hartmann’s careful supervision. She feeds them a granola-like mix of oats, molasses and barley, scratching their heads lovingly as they wait patiently for their udders to empty. The dairy delivers 163 litres of buffalo milk a day to Natural Pastures Cheese Company in Courtenay, where it emerges as Mozzarella di Bufala, balls of porcelain white, rich, moist cheese that are heavenly with tomato and basil, or on pizza.
The farm work is non-stop, but when the family takes a few minutes of downtime, it’s in the company of their gentle giants. With the water buffalo, they cement a bond of trust, love, companionship and symbiosis on a daily basis. Watch this relationship unfold as a guest at the farmhouse and you can’t help but be filled with wonder.
If you go: Guests can experience a farmstay at Fairburn in the spring and summer, when accommodation in the historic farmhouse is available for $120 to $165 per night. Families coming with kids can help at milking time, bottle-feed the buffalo calves and fetch eggs from the chicken coop in the mornings. Info: fairburnfarm.bc.ca or call, 250-746-4637.
Farm tours are offered between May and September, including tastings of mozzarella di bufala. Tours cost $6 for children and $8 for adults.