The bull’s name is Bond, as in James Bond, license to kill. Weighing in at 800 kilograms, this champion stud proudly stands guard over his charge of 31 heifers and calves in a crowded, turn of the century barn on Vancouver Island. When Bond lived in quarantine in Denmark, awaiting official clearance to come to Canada, he was, by all accounts, a calm and peaceful animal. But during his trip in the belly of a Lufthansa cargo plane with the original 18 females, he became enraged, smashing the sides of his crate and scaring the pilots enough so that they declared they would never transport another bull. Perhaps Bond sensed the political troubles that lay ahead. After hearing this story, a native elder from the local Cowichan tribe speculated that Bond had left behind his spirit on the ground when the plane lifted off eighteen months ago. Neither Bond’s strength nor the distinction of being part of the only pure bred river water buffalo herd in Canada have spared him the humiliation and inhumane conditions imposed upon him by a Canadian government agency intent on making a national sacrifice of the animals in the name of food safety and to protect our large factory livestock operations.
After many years attempting several farming ventures at Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan valley on beautiful Southern Vancouver Island, farmers Darrel and Anthea Archer decided to import a herd of pure bred water buffalo of Bulgarian origin from Denmark, where they had originally been slated for sale to Australia. This passionate farming couple was excited to establish a dairy herd to supply local cheesmakers with milk. The conditions on Vancouver Island seem ideal. A temperate climate and winter rainfall produce lush pastures conducive to grazing ruminants. Over the years, a strong, established dairy industry, strictly controlled by milk quotas, meant the only way to get into the dairy farming is to inherit a farm with quota or invest a small fortune to acquire existing quota. The water buffalo seemed to provide the ideal alternative. Reared for millennia around the world, the animals do not require high protein, expensive feed but thrive on even marginal forage crops. They love water and are not susceptible to foot rot which plague sheep raised in damp, rainy conditions. Moreover, strict quotas applying to cows milk do not control their milk. The Archers hoped to provide the nascent industry of small artisan cheese makers with all the local buffalo milk they wanted.
The original herd of 19 animals arrived in January of 2000 and were placed in quarantine on the farm until they cleared tests for tuberculosis and brucellosis, a standard precaution, typically lasting 60 days. The following month, the first case of mad cow disease, Bovine Spongiform Encepalopathy (BSE) struck in Denmark, in a single dairy cow housed hundreds of kilometers from where the buffalo had been. In spite of the fact that there has never been a single case of BSE reported in a water buffalo anywhere in the world, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in their wisdom, deemed this cause for concern by inspection regulatory agencies situated in Ottawa, thousands of kilometers away. Each country in the world has a BSE rating. The UK, France and Portugal are at high risk and countries such as Australia and New Zealand, with thousands of acres of open grazing lands, have the lowest. The presence of animals from a country with a known infection could be catastrophic for the North American cattle industry. And so, in September 2000, after eight months of quarantine, the Canadian government issued an order to destroy the water buffalo herd, which had now grown in size to 26. The Archers were, of course, perplexed and devastated- their life savings and entire future were at stake. The order was not based on logic or actual risk as feed records had shown the animals had not been fed more then grass and occasional beet pulp. Moreover, Bulgaria, a country of widespread poverty, would not have had the means or the reason to feed water buffalo expensive, high protein feed. Furthermore, there has never been a single case of mad cow disease reported in a water buffalo anywhere in the world out of a total population in excess of 150,000,000.
Loath to give up, the Archers began to assemble a case against the unjust and illogical order dictated from afar. They found support in the most unlikely places, including the very scientist employed by the Canadian government to write the initial, in depth, scientific risk assessment, Joan Orr. Her affidavit, combined with volumes of records assembled by the Archers’ lawyer Simon Fothergill, resulted in a landmark federal court decision to dismiss the order to destroy on the grounds that there was not sufficient evidence that these animals posed a risk to Canadian food safety.
Their battle, however, is still not over. On some inexplicable bureaucratic pretext, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is convinced these animals still pose a threat. Under political pressure in a time when fears about food have become a global obsession, the agency continues to work on new risk assessments to provide the grounds for issuing another order to destroy these animals. The Archers, who at one point, before the f&m outbreak, considered relocating to Denmark or England with the water buffalo, are now resigned to simply waiting it out and trying to move ahead with their life and dream. Darrel Archer, undaunted and stoic but without money for supplies or labor, has begun to single-handedly cut down trees from his property and mill them to construct a new milking barn. Anthea continues to work tirelessly running her beautifully situated Bed and Breakfast farmstay in their charming old farmhouse, while researching and educating the public on the absurdity of their situation. She is tormented by the specter of farm bankruptcy and, accordingly, anxious to create an income from their buffalo milking venture.
The local community holds mixed views on their predicament. Several of the Island’s old time dairy farmers see the water buffalo as a potential threat to their industry and would be happy to see them go. On the other hand, many Vancouver Islanders, chefs, farmers and food enthusiasts have supported the Archers by raising funds to contribute to their legal costs. The newly formed Vancouver Island Slow Food Convivium, headed up by Dr. Sinclair Philip, owner of the world renown Sooke Harbour House seaside restaurant and hotel, sees the cheese from the water buffalo as a prototype for a very promising, ethically raised food product which will provide a good living income for Vancouver Island farmers and delicious dairy products to the people of this region.
‘Our region offers up some of the most delicious and safest food on the surface of the earth at a time when the overall quality of food in developed countries is plummeting,’ states Philip. ‘Regulatory agencies in Europe and North America are multiplying rules that promote and protect gigantic industrial food commodity producers at the expense of the small-scale family farmer and rancher who may be our only remaining guarantee of quality, flavorful, safe food’, he continues. ‘The Archers at Fairburn Farm, a beautiful picture postcard family farm here on Vancouver Island, are in the forefront of high quality, innovative, healthful water buffalo milk production and deserve the utmost support. I take my hat off to these valiant pioneers and as a convivium, we pledge our utmost support to these tireless people.’
The Vancouver Island Slow Food Convivium is planning their major event of the year this November, featuring the first ever buffalo mozzarella to be made from the Canadian herd. The local Convivium is committed to helping the Archers in every possible way to reach their goals of producing milk and encouraging other sustainable, ethical, and high quality farming ventures for the Islands.
‘The richness and quality of water buffalo milk, proven in Europe, Australia and other countries, provides a tremendous opportunity to add diversity to the agricultural scene on Vancouver Island,’ says local cheesemaker Hilary Abbott. ‘In a time where modern agriculture practices have caused great problems,’ he continues, ‘traditional methods such as those used to raise water buffalo should be embraced.’
As for the buffalo, time is hopefully on their side. The original herd of 19 animals has swollen to 32. Obviously the prolific animals are capable of thriving at the Archers’ Fairburn Farm. The longer the animals live without any sign of illness the weaker the case for a risk of BSE. As well, there are now two generations of Canadian born buffalo in the herd. The animals have, however, suffered setbacks. With the inhumane conditions imposed by the federal government quarantine boundaries to a small barn meant to accommodate the original 19 animals for 60 days, the Archers have lost three animals due to crowding. One young calf starved to death while housed with several rambunctious yearlings, which are still nursing on their mothers, while another was trampled to death. Instead of seeing his herd happily grazing in the lush fields of Fairburn Farm, Darrel Archer must bring cut hay and silage to the buffalo’s crowded paddock. In spite of the hardship, the Archers remain hopeful.
‘What we’ve found in the water buffalo is much more then a farming venture’, says Anthea Archer wistfully. ‘We’ve found an animal that is full of trust, wanting to please and easy to take care of. Everyone should have a water buffalo!’
Mara Jernigan is a chef, farmer and active member of the newly formed Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium.
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