Photos by FOCUSNOMORE and Ben Apatow
In 2014, Audrey Hitchcock and her husband, Craig Ramini, were living their dream of making mozzarella cheese from their small herd of water buffaloes. Their budding business was growing and life was good.
But their dream was shattered when Ramini was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Nine months later, he was gone. “I reopened a month later at the request, and with the support, of our customers,” Hitchcock said.
They didn’t originally set out to raise water buffalo.
“Craig always wanted to do something creative, contribute to society, and to leave something for his family,” Hitchcock said. “There were five things that were required for a happy career: to be an entrepreneur, to work outdoors, to be unique, to work with animals, and to work with food.”
Left: Audrey Hitchcock shows a unique relationship with her water buffaloes. Right: the end result is a dreamy dollop of fresh mozzarella, this one presented in olive and basil.
Cheese seemed to be the common denominator, but Hitchcock and Ramini had to decide what kind of cheese to make.
Most cheese was not unique, and they were not interested in raising cows, goats, or sheep.
They settled on a rare type of mozzarella cheese—the kind made in Italy using milk from water buffaloes.
They opened their unique dairy in 2009. “We began with five water buffaloes, a shoe string budget and a big dream,” she said. “By 2012, we were successfully selling out of all the cheese we could produce.”
Water buffalo milk is richer in protein, higher in butterfat, and lower in cholesterol than cow’s milk.
All the buffaloes on the farm have names, and each cow is milked once a day for six days. Those no longer needed are given to various sanctuaries on greener pastures.
“The margins for mozzarella are tough to meet, but I am happy that I have water buffalo,” she said. “I am happy I have a cheese that is hard to find and there is not much competition, and I am happy that I have found other ways to make money because mozzarella does not make money.”
To supplement her income, she offers tours of the farm and does online fundraisers.
Hitchcock tends to her prized herd, all of whom have names.
“In addition to our Saturday tours where people can experience this relationship first hand and taste the cheese, we also host private tours to culinary students who want to learn more about ranching and cheese making,” she said
Her business continues to grow each year.
In 2015, she had 30 animals and six restaurants as customers, one part-time employee, and one wheelbarrow.
In 2021, she had 88 animals and six restaurants, 12 grocery stores, and six farmers markets as customers, six part-time employees, an ATV, a truck, and gives Saturday tours.
Other ideas are in the planning stage, such as expanding the visitor options and making other products such as yogurt, butter, and ice cream.
“I don’t see the business like most people in cheese do,” she said. “I see the animal and experience as a market for us to make money and allow people to enjoy the buffalo as much as I do. They are humbling and healing creatures.”
Hitchcock has some simple advice for anyone considering cheesemaking as a life’s work, “Make sure it’s a decision based on passion and lifestyle, not money.”