By Sarah Tory | June 12, 2019
“If more ranchers knew about water buffalo, they would forget about cows,” José Miranda, a Carbondale rancher, told me one morning last January over breakfast. He listed their advantages: The milk tastes great and it’s healthier, with less cholesterol, 11 percent more protein, 9 percent more calcium and 37 percent more iron than cow’s milk. Water buffalo have environmental benefits, too; they’re able to thrive on more marginal pastures and less resource-intensive foods than dairy cows.
We’d been sitting around his kitchen table with Miranda’s partner, Erin Cuseo, who runs her own small vegetable farm, and his friend and apprentice, Wyatt Dallenbach, getting ready to visit the herd of 18 water buffalo he keeps on a rented plot of land just west of town. Then we climbed into his old green Land Rover, accompanied by his daughter, Paz, and drove through the snow-blanketed streets towards the mountains.
Originally from the swamplands of Southeast Asia, water buffalo have been imported to many parts of world, most famously Italy, where they are coveted for their milk, source of the soft and creamy cheese mozzarella di bufala. Water buffalo herds are now found in the Americas from the high Andes to the dry prairies of central Canada. Still, Miranda has encountered plenty of skeptics. How, they ask, does an animal from the tropics survive winters—especially a hard winter like the last one—at over 6,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley?
In any case, he has always been drawn to difficult things.
Miranda, who has an unruly black beard, intense green eyes, and a missing front tooth, was born and raised in Venezuela’s los llanos, the central flatlands, where his family owned a water buffalo ranch. “Cows were foreign to me,” he says.
Cows didn’t thrive in Venezuela’s native grasslands, so for decades, cattle ranchers planted non-native grasses at great cost. When water buffalo were introduced in 1976—the year Miranda was born—Venezuela’s ranchers started realizing that they didn’t have to remove native grasses anymore. It’s ironic, he admits, that a foreign animal could help preserve the natural landscape.
Meanwhile, Venezuela was descending into political and economic turmoil under the Hugo Chávez regime. For a few years, Miranda believed that he could avoid it out there on his ranch, but the turmoil found him. One day, in 2013, a group of armed men arrived at the ranch and robbed his family at gunpoint. They forced Miranda to the floor, tied him up, and filled a pickup with his tools, saddles—even the kids’ bicycles.
A day later, his wife and kids were on a plane to the U.S. Miranda followed soon after, walking away from everything he had built. They moved to Carbondale, where Miranda’s wife was from, and Miranda got a job as a ranch manager at the Tybar Cattle Ranch.
Miranda, joined by his mother, stepson, and partner, Erin Cuseo, holds his and Cuseo’s newborn son, Wekta. The buffalos are extremely affectionate toward him and his family. Photo by Luna Anna Archey / High Country News
Despite having no animals, no land and a young family to support, Miranda was not ready to give up on his dream. In 2014, Colorado delisted the water buffalo as an exotic species, and Miranda decided to begin building a herd. A hobby farmer from Fort Collins named Richard Wheeler spearheaded the delisting, after he pointed out that Asian water buffalo and African water buffalo had been incorrectly categorized as the same species. Asian Water Buffalo have been domesticated for longer than cattle, he argued, and by keeping them listed as “exotic,” the state was hindering dairy commerce.
The following year, Miranda bought his first two water buffalo calves from a Texas breeder. The next year, he bought a couple more. But buying his own property was too expensive, so he began leasing plots of land around Carbondale and transformed an old trailer into a portable dairy barn, painted light blue and emblazoned with the words “mobile milking trailer.” It’s a DIY model he hopes other aspiring farmers might follow—one that might make it easier for a place like the Roaring Fork Valley, with its emphasis on local food, to actually support the farmers and ranchers who produce it.
At the pasture, two water buffalo calves were suckling a pregnant heifer named Missouri that Miranda bought from the Texas breeder. The breeder artificially inseminated her with sperm he imported from Italy—the only country that meets USDA approval for imported water buffalo semen. With Missouri pregnant, Miranda had trained her to adopt the new calves as her own.
With the lack of an established water buffalo industry in the U.S., finding reliable animals has remained a challenge. So is capital: Miranda needed money to keep growing his herd. He tried to apply for a zero interest loan from 2 Forks Club, a local nonprofit that supports local farmers and food entrepreneurs, but wasn’t accepted. “In Venezuela, we say (you need to be) encamburado,” Miranda told me. “I came here as a foreigner, so I’m not part of the club,” he explained, meaning the local ranching community whose roots in the valley go back generations. He ended up getting a regular loan from the bank.
Access to land is another challenge. Across the West—and especially in the Roaring Fork Valley—rising property values mean the cost of a mortgage far surpasses what a farmer or rancher can produce from agriculture. At one point, Miranda looked into buying a house on 40 acres—just enough to use as a winter base camp for the buffalo—but the cheapest he could find was $700,000. Farther up the valley, closer to Carbondale, it was at least $1.5 million.
In the past few decades, many of the older ranchers and farmers have sold their property to developers or to land trusts as conservation easements. The easements protect the farmland from becoming subdivisions, but don’t ensure that it stays in production. Miranda would like to see a program in which more county-owned land is made available to farmers at low cost so they can provide some of the food they grow to food banks and low-income communities.
In the meantime, Miranda has been innovating his way around the challenges he faces. By renting land and building his mobile dairy, he can keep his costs low, buying time to grow his herd and make connections with future buyers. Chefs and foodies consider buffalo mozzarella a premium product, worth much more than regular mozzarella. One restaurateur from nearby Aspen invited Miranda to taste the mozzarella he made from buffalo milk imported all the way from Italy. The cheese regularly sells for $30 a pound in the U.S. and Miranda realized that his only competitors were the Italians; he could offer the same product locally and more cheaply.
Still, even Wheeler, the man who got water buffalo off Colorado’s exotic species list, remains skeptical of the animal’s ranching’s potential. “It’s a niche market,” he told me. “Maybe some local cheese stores would be interested, but it’s mostly a novelty.”
On a recent blustery day in May, I went with Miranda and his partner, Cuseo, to visit the herd at their summer pasture, east of Carbondale in Old Snowmass, in a green valley at the base of the Elk Mountains. It was a season of changes. Two weeks before, Cuseo had given birth to a baby boy—their first child together—while in February, a female named Orinoco gave birth to Miranda’s first calf, Caicara—both named after places in Venezuela. Meanwhile, in Miranda’s home country, a violent attempted coup against the regime of Nicolás Maduro was underway. Miranda’s parents and 94-year-old grandmother still live there, despite his pleas for them to leave.
Miranda no longer contemplates returning permanently to Venezuela. Most of his fellow ranchers have moved their herds to neighboring Colombia anyway, while here in the mountains of Colorado, Miranda is finally rebuilding what he lost when he left his native country. With another of his heifers pregnant and nine calves expected for next year, Miranda is confident that in a few years, he’ll have enough milk-producing buffalo to begin making cheese commercially.
“Oh, mi preciosa,” he coos, gently nudging one of the buffalo to lie down with him in the scratchy grass. Miranda rubs her belly, savoring the animal’s slightly sour smell and recalling how, until he arrived in Colorado, he didn’t realize that what he thought was the smell of his homeland had been the smell of the water buffalos all along.