August 4, 2022

St. Johns family savor life on a ‘Backyard Buffalo’ farm

Punita Patel keeps a pair of Muck boots on hand for getting around her four acres in Palm Valley, not far from TPC Sawgrass and a few high-end boutiques.

She calls it Backyard Buffalo. It’s an apt name, as it’s where she takes care of eight water buffaloes in her garden – animals that remind her of her childhood home – as well as sheep, chickens and bees.

Oh, and there’s also Koko, an 80-pound Pyrenean dog, his farm dog. But he still masters all that farm dog stuff.

“I think his job description is very different from what he thinks,” notes Patel.

She got him to protect the farm animals from the wild animals of Grand Ponte Vedra, especially if he seems to just want to protect her, which involves a lot of snooping.

Backyard Buffalo is a micro-dairy that sells its products (yogurt is the most popular product) at local farmers’ markets.

Patel says she was unsure at first about asking others to buy what she makes, but now she’s comfortable with it, quick with a smile and ready with sample after sample of her wares.

She has gradually built a stable group of regular customers, many of whom follow her buffaloes and life on the farm in Patel’s humorous and good-natured posts on the Backyard Buffalo Facebook page.

It all started a few years ago. Patel craved the creamy, rich taste of the water buffalo milk she grew up on in her native India, but she couldn’t find any to deliver.

So she got Goldie, a sweet creature, from a farmer in New Jersey. Goldie later had a calf, Luna. No longer followed.

Patel was hooked on his new life tending to his buffaloes, giant horned creatures with an important connection to Florida: the first commercial herd of water buffaloes was established in America in 1975 by the University of Florida .

“One thing I wasn’t sure about was if I was going to be able to fall in love with them,” she said. “I wanted to be a good goalkeeper, but I didn’t know if I had that in me. I was doing it for the milk. But I fell in love the night Goldie arrived… I looked at her, she looked at me, it was a human connection. It’s quite powerful. I think that’s what keeps me going. »

Patel grew up in a middle-class family in western India, north of Mumbai. Her journey to America began when her mother left her husband, an alcoholic, a move that clashed with the culture there.

“That’s part of the reason she wanted to come here, to get away from this kind of social shunning that she was getting,” Patel said.

As a teenager, Patel said she was hesitant to go to America; she didn’t speak English and her whole life was in India.

But Lufkin, Texas, where uncles lived, would soon be a new home for Patel, his sister and their mother. Lufkin, however, was not how she had imagined America.

“It was 1992, before the internet, and what I knew about the United States came from stories that I heard, that people reported,” she said. “I came here hoping to go to a land of milk and honey – people said you get ice cream in a gallon bucket! We came to Lufkin’s and I thought, wait, it’s like in the real world!

After college, Patel, who is 46, became a traveling nurse, working in US states (she says she feels most like a Californian).

She worked as a neonatal nurse before staying home to raise her two daughters. She moved from Missouri to northern Florida when her physician husband, Akash Sharma, took a job at the Mayo Clinic.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my quarantine,” she said. “I’m glad I found this.”

She got invaluable help when she advertised for a “substitute milker” in a community newspaper. Dan Stone, who was mostly retired, answered the call. He figured it was better than doing Sudoku, and it put him in touch with his youth, growing up on a dairy farm in upstate New York.

He gave valuable advice, threw himself into building projects – the milking shed, the chicken coop, the drainage issues – and quickly came to admire Patel, who dragged 80 sacks of concrete by his side. books.

“She is dedicated to farming,” Stone said. “She is dedicated to marketing good, healthy food in a way that gives her pleasure, maybe someday a monetary benefit. I think it’s being able to say she did it.

Stone still comes to volunteer at Backyard Buffalo, even though he has since moved near Daytona Beach. Stone said he never saw Patel get discouraged by hard work.

“Part of it is this immigration gene. If you have enough balls to leave it all behind and start over, you’re special, you’re in a different class than those of us who grew up in America,” he said. “If you’re able to do that, you’re pretty much capable of doing anything.”

Patel agreed. “Absolutely. I think it was a defining moment when mom left. These are hard things in life that you go through. But those hard things also change you and prepare you for the next challenges in life.

Patel said having water buffaloes instead of cows doesn’t mean she has to follow any special regulations, although since the animals are used for dairy production they must be tested annually for brucellosis and tuberculosis.

The sale of what she made at Backyard Buffalo started slowly. In the beginning, she sold plain buffalo yoghurt, her favorite. It was not a success.

“I came home with all the products I went to market with, I sold almost nothing for several weeks. Maybe several months,” she said.

She found more success when she started mixing flavors, trying to appeal to American palates.

Things got even better when she followed the advice of her mother, Kokila, who lives with her and helps prepare the food.

Add Indian flavors, she tells her daughter. Soon, its yogurts and dips had flavors like cardamom, carrot-pickle, sour cherry, jalapeno-pickle, and cucumber-onion.

Turns out people loved it and business picked up, especially at the Neptune Beach Saturday afternoon market, where Patel said he found a welcoming community with an adventurous palate.

Its buffalo milk yogurts started selling; animals do not produce as much milk as cows. So Patel started using cow’s milk from Wainwright Dairy in Live Oak, which makes deliveries to him every week.

Patel says she also learns from her clients, whom she meets in person weekly, telling her what they like.

“It just made me bolder, doing the market, getting accepted, a little bit at a time. Now we’re shameless Indians with some of the things mom does. I do what mom did, what we did so well for centuries.

Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082