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Can mozzarella help Pennsylvania’s struggling dairy farms? Caputo Bros. Creamery bets on water buffalo.

The dairy industry needs money to survive. A promising mozzarella project is poised to make a difference.

One of the water buffalos inside a pen at Don Boyer & Sons farm in East Berlin, Pa., on Thursday, Sept., 3, 2020. The water buffalos will be used for milking and put into the making of the Caputo Bros. Creamery mozzarella cheese.
One of the water buffalos inside a pen at Don Boyer & Sons farm in East Berlin, Pa., on Thursday, Sept., 3, 2020. The water buffalos will be used for milking and put into the making of the Caputo Bros. Creamery mozzarella cheese.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

East Berlin, Pa. — Brothers Brad and Larry Boyer have been tending to dairy cows on the rolling hills of Adams County all their lives on a farm deeded to their family by William Penn. But that centuries-old family tradition has been in grave danger as the dairy industry suffers through a crisis of such low commodity milk prices, it now costs more to produce milk than the farmers receive.

“The cows were going to have to leave here because it just wasn’t working anymore,” says Brad, 52, who had been considering converting the farm’s focus into cash crops and steers for meat. “You don’t want to lose the family farm.”

The Boyers are hardly alone. As many as 500 small family Pennsylvania dairy farms have disappeared over the past two years, according to Amber Yutzy, a dairy educator at Penn State Extension, with the pressures of an already shrinking market and vulnerable supply chain being further disrupted by COVID-19.

Could mozzarella made from the milk of water buffaloes be the Boyers’ dairy savior? It just might work if Rynn and David Caputo are correct.

The married owners behind Caputo Brothers Creamery in nearby Spring Grove have gambled on purchasing a herd of 28 water buffaloes — prized elsewhere around the world for the richness and quality of their milk, and especially in Southern Italy for making mozzarella — and partnered with some Pennsylvania dairy farmers to raise and milk them. The project began this summer with the Don Boyer & Sons farm, which welcomed the massive beasts with curlicue horns at the end of June. If only they could figure out how to consistently milk them.

“They have to face the right way in the milking parlor, but they don’t always do that yet,” says Brad’s wife, Michele, acknowledging the heifers were still skittish after recently giving birth to calves that could be heard lowing in a nearby pen.

“They definitely have a mind of their own,” says Brad, noting that they’d already dug deep mud holes to wallow in his fields, that they’re docile enough to be petted, and that their call sounds more like a giant pig barking (”mwah! mwah! mwah!”) than the tuneful “moo” of cows. “We’re just learning. You have to be gentle with them. You have to earn their trust.”

When all goes well and the milk is flowing, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

“It’s more of a brighter, pearly white with higher butterfat and richer flavor,” says Brad.

When mixed with the production from the Boyers' 80 milking cows — a blend Caputo recently began making all its cheeses with — the financial returns have also been rewarding. Before partnering with Caputo, the Boyers were receiving as low as $12 per 100 pounds of milk from the ever-fluctuating market prices of their cooperative — even though it cost them about $16 to produce. The Caputos require higher quality milk and more stringent animal welfare standards, which adds costs in feed and farm improvements. But the milk is more valuable when used for cheese, so the Caputos are paying the Boyers $28 per 100 pounds (about 11.6 gallons), nearly tripling their monthly revenues.

"Adding value and diversifying is something we at Penn State have been telling dairy farmers to consider," says Yutzy, who notes that most of Pennsylvania’s 6,500 remaining dairies are small family farms. This project is one of the first heard of with water buffalo.

“It’s a big improvement,” says Brad. “If (Rynn’s) goal is to save more family dairy farms, I’d say that yes, she’s definitely saving some.”

The hybrid buffalo-cow dairy arrangement, which they hope to replicate with at least three other farms, is just the beginning for the Caputos in their quest to finally begin producing the kind of mozzarella that captured their hearts when they attended culinary school in 2005 in Campania. That Southern Italian region specializes in bufala mozzarella, which is notable for a mouth-coating richness that leaves a bright tang and lingering sweetness.

But, as with so many grand plans in the era of coronavirus, the pandemic nearly blew the whole thing up, including the company itself: “Should we just put the key in the door and walk away?” Rynn remembers thinking in their deepest moment of crisis. “There were a lot of questions.”

The Caputos had fast become one of the nation’s most celebrated producers of artisan cow’s milk mozzarella curds, ricotta and other Italian-style cheeses after launching in 2011. With easy access to Pennsylvania’s dairy country and an old world fermentation method for their curds that distinguished them from most of the competition, they grew quickly with an early boost of sales by the prestigious New York purveyor, Murray’s Cheese. They increased from 40 pounds a week at the outset to 8,000 pounds a week in 2020. Their growth has also been fueled by the popular cheeses infused with beers from Tröegs in Hershey (like Mad Elf, Troegenator and Perpetual IPA Cheese) they now produce exclusively for Giant markets.

But Caputo Brothers instantly lost its accounts with 114 restaurants across the country when dining room shutdowns landed hard in mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. Also shuttered was their thriving travel business of culinary tours of Italy. The Caputos dipped deep into cash reserves to keep their 23 employees on payroll with health benefits. By mid-April, however, they hit a wall. With just $875 left in the bank, $45,000 still owed to them by restaurant accounts, and their application for a Paycheck Protection Payment (PPP) loan stuck in limbo, the Caputos were suddenly unable to pay one of their farms for a week’s worth of milk they’d previously committed to, resulting in the dumping of 3,000 gallons of milk.

“There’s nothing I am more ashamed of in my career than that phone call,” says Rynn. “It was the hardest decision I have had to make — because usually I am their champion.”

And so in desperation she turned to social media, putting out a plea for assistance on FaceBook Live (”This is what being a small business now looks like, and I need help.”) It was answered by an instant jolt of online sales, but, more importantly, Good Morning America came calling, too. A late April spotlight on Caputo’s make-at-home mozzarella kit generated over $300,000. A $130,000 PPP loan showed up later that week. And suddenly, the cheese company’s bufala dreams were back on track.

The Caputos used $30,000 of earnings from their GMA promotion to complete a delayed agreement of purchase for a water buffalo herd from New Jersey. With several calves just born at the Boyer farm and more on the way, the herd is already growing to an expected 34.

But acquiring and raising the animals is only part of the puzzle. While water buffalo are revered elsewhere around the globe as beasts of burden, as well as sources of milk and meat, they’ve yet to make an impact in the United States as a sustainable dairy source. Of the 180 million water buffaloes farmed around the world, only about 2,500 were in the United States in 2019, according to the American Water Buffalo Association.

“I’ve visited so many water buffalo farms over the past 10 years that don’t work,” says Rynn, “because there’s no infrastructure or supply chain.”

Aside from being delicious, water buffalo milk is also highly perishable, she says, with a shelf life of no more than two days. But the Caputos believe they have cracked a secret code by creating hybrid buffalo-cow dairy farms and deciding to blend the two milks for the “best of both worlds — with the shelf life of cow’s milk and the taste and flavor of bufala.”

Even at just over 10% of buffalo milk in the early mix, an extra hint of richness and sweet lactic tang was perceptible in the fresh rounds of mozzarella that were rolling off the Caputo’s new stretching and balling machine. The automation will expand their ability to produce more finished mozzarella — and not just the curds which have long been the core of their business. The curds come in a block that needs to be broken up, salted, and stretched under hot water by customers on site, but are preferred by many to pre-fab cheese for optimal freshness.

“Twice a week we run the baller to test and evaluate,” says Rynn, who concedes the cheese still needs to be adjusted for flavor, texture and shelf life before they distribute it through Lancaster Farm Fresh, hopefully within the next couple months. (Caputo already makes very limited amounts of finished mozzarella by hand.)

She envisions the buffalo milk content rising to 35% of the mix as the milk supply increases over the next few years, and eventually cheeses made with pure buffalo. Such cheeses are already widely available, but pricey, and virtually all are imported or made with imported curds. In the meanwhile, Caputo’s bufala growth is planned around distributing the herd among several dairy farms, including three more that are already interested, “so we can build up the milk supply without any one farm having to take the full leap.”

One of the nation’s largest and longest established water buffalo ranchers, Thomas “T.J.” Olson of the Turkey Creek Co. in Texarkana, Ark., believes the Caputos might just have a shot.

“I’ve worked with almost all the water buffalo startups, and they’ve all run into problems for different reasons,” said Olson, who began ranching the animals in 1985. “One of the large hindrances is that when someone gets into the buffalo business, they’re usually on their own. They have to milk it, store it, make the cheese and then market it. And that’s tough for one person to do.”

With the Boyer brothers raising the animals and getting a fair price for the milk, and the Caputos focusing on their specialties, making the cheese and marketing, “it could be a salvation for everybody,” says Olson.

Can the water buffalo save Pennsylvania’s struggling family dairy farms? The industry-wide problems are too great, perhaps, for any one solution to remedy. But this promising mozzarella project is poised to make a difference one farm at a time.

“Dairy farming is a way of life, and I don’t want to see houses built here on this open space,” says Brad Boyer. “But we need money to survive, and some of these farms are definitely going to give up. (Rynn’s) very passionate about these water buffalo, though. So we’re going to give it a shot for her.”