By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Punita Patel values a really good cup of tea.
Having grown up in India, Patel enjoyed the cuisine so much, and, most especially, the tea; however, something was missing when she tried to recreate that exact cup in the United States.
“I realized that the tea was so good and what made it so special was the milk from water buffalo,” said Patel, who moved to Texas when she was 17 years old.
Patel searched for water buffalo milk; she tried to order some from a Vermont farm but it could not be shipped, and she asked local dairy farmers to consider adding one water buffalo to their farms. She hit a dead end. That’s when Patel, a nurse by training, knew that she had to open a micro dairy farm.
Patel spent many years researching and visiting water buffalo farms and moved to St. Johns County three years ago looking to find land for what would become Backyard Buffalo. After living in Nocatee for one year, Patel and her family purchased four acres off Canal Boulevard in Palm Valley that included helpful horse farm infrastructure.
Enter Goldie, the Patel’s first water buffalo from a New Jersey farm. She arrived in December 2017, and Patel said she was restless the night before before worrying about the animal’s size and many other details.
Goldie arrived in a trailer that was too big to fit down Patel’s driveway, so Goldie had to walk the distance of the driveway to get to her paddock. Somehow, Goldie knew what to do.
“It worked out like a dream,” said Patel. “It was as if she knew where she needed to go.”
Her children, now nine-year-old twins and an 11-year-old, found an instant connection with Goldie, and Patel found them snuggling up to Goldie the next morning. Patel said she has learned so much throughout this journey, and that process will never end.
Goldie had her first calf, Luna, four months after she arrived at the Backyard Buffalo. A second milking buffalo, Lola, arrived in 2019, and Patel soon realized that she needed some assistance. So, she placed an ad on a local site, looking for someone interested in milking water buffalo.
Enter Dan Stone, a retired civil engineer who had worked on a dairy farm and had also owned a beef farm. Stone’s wife encouraged him to answer the ad.
“It was life-altering for me to have met him,” said Patel.
Not only did Stone volunteer to milk the water buffalo, but he used his engineering background to make life on the farm easier for Patel by building a milk parlor/milk house, raising a roof to meet regulations, building fences and figuring out drainage issues.
Patel said she also had to learn the best way to share her products with the community. Going to farmer’s markets proved to be the best way to grow her business and to learn product preferences even though Patel was at first scared to be a vendor.
“My fears were not realized. They are all trying to help me better my product,” she said. “I am guided by all the kindness around me. I have found help at the most unexpected places. If you keep at it, folks will come out to support you.”
Patel’s products include items such as Shrikhand, a creamy treat made from cultured milk and often blended with fresh fruits, nuts and/or spices; Raita, a blend of vegetables with a soft yogurt like cheese to be eaten as a dip or condiment; and Ghee, a purified butter made using buffalo cream and local cow cream.
Patel currently sells her products at Beaches Green Market in Neptune Beach (which includes pop up market locations) and The Harvest Basket, the Palm Valley Farmer’s Market off Canal Boulevard. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Patel has switched to online sales with delivery being provided by The Harvest Basket. (To place an order and to see a full product list, visit www.backyardbuffalo.com.)
“Backyard Buffalo products are made using centuries old Indian traditional techniques. We are working with the Florida Department of Agriculture to get these processes state approved. Until then, to comply with Florida regulations, all our products must be labeled ‘Not for Human Consumption,’” said Patel.
Patel said she works closely with and learns from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Dairy Division and the Dairy Inspector. She sees the regulators and inspectors as allies who want to see her succeed. Patel said that a milk room is currently being constructed for Backyard Buffalo in New York which will help her with this approval process.
Today, Patel has three milking water buffalos (the third one is named Milky), seven sheep, chickens and honey bees (she both sells the honey and uses it in her products) and is looking for anyone interested in boarding sheep in their backyards. Her dream is to recreate Backyard Buffalo in many different places.
“That is the reason for our business name,” said Patel. “I envision this being in other people’s backyards and keeping this in our community.”
Photo courtesy Punita Patel
Punita Patel and one of her children with a water buffalo