A Day in the Life of a Buffalo Dairy Farmer in Laos
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because who knew you could find fresh cheese in Laos?
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Luang Prabang, Laos
It’s busy. We have some experts who are going to show students from the local university the inner workings of a buffalo and teach them how to judge how pregnant a buffalo is by reaching into the uterus. And they will talk about artificial insemination and how it’s properly done.
My background is a little eclectic. I have a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in early childhood education, and I have a culinary degree. My husband, Matthew, works in finance, and we were living outside Boston trying to get a transfer overseas. Finally, an opportunity came up in Singapore, so we moved there with our three kids. There I taught household helpers how to make meals for Western families, while also catering and teaching cooking to kids. We became close friends with Susie Martin and Steven McWhirter, who are from Australia. In 2013 Susie left her job, and my husband quit a couple months later. I said, “I am so not going home. What are we going to do?” Susie said, “Let’s go build a hotel.” We loved Luang Prabang from a previous vacation, and we settled on Laos as a destination.
The idea for a dairy came up in part because Susie and I wanted cheese. Also our two families went to Sri Lanka in 2013, where we had buffalo curd — this thick, rich, creamy, beautiful breakfast food. We saw all the buffalo here and we said, “Where’s your buffalo curd?” And they looked at us like we were nuts.
The great thing about buffalo milk is that the makeup of it is so different from cows’ milk that most people who are lactose intolerant can enjoy it.
In the beginning, with permits and licenses, it was a little difficult because they didn’t understand we wanted to be a business and not a nongovernmental organization. They kept asking how much money we were going to put into it, and our answer was: “As little as possible.” It’s an industry they’ve never seen before. One of our own staff members, a very well-educated guy, said the other day: “Doesn’t yogurt come from fruit?”
Dairy is not common here, because about 90 percent of East Asians are lactose intolerant. But the medical knowledge has changed, and the government is now, here especially, trying to encourage people to consume dairy because it’s important for bone health. The great thing about buffalo milk is that the makeup of it is so different from cows’ milk that the majority of people who are lactose intolerant can enjoy buffalo products without any problems. We’ve actually used a few of our friends as guinea pigs.
I’m the head chef. Our biggest customers are the restaurants in Luang Prabang that mostly cater to tourists and expats. We’re currently selling mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt, cheesecake, ricotta cake and, on occasion, ice cream, though I’m still working on my recipe. We’ve been giving ice cream away to local kids as they go by to school.
We rent the buffalo from local farmers, giving them an extra income stream, and trying to get them to trust us has been one of the biggest challenges. Fortunately, the local village chief has been with us every step of the way. And when the buffalo came back stronger and fatter, it helped to change the way they view us. We have 13 buffalo right now, and we’re hoping to be up to 100 by the end of this year. We have the capacity for 240 moms and 240 babies, but we’re saying 200 is our maximum.
We have people stopping by every day, so Susie said we should put a tourist aspect in. We’re going to have a pond, a little petting zoo, a cafe and a little biogas containment center to teach farmers how to do that themselves. They can use a little poop from their family of animals to run their kitchens on biogas and get rid of the charcoal. We’re going to run as much of the farm on it as we can, but that needs money.