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 upscale boutiques.
She calls her place Backyard Buffalo. It’s a fitting name, as it’s where she takes care of eight water buffaloes in her backyard – animals that remind her of her childhood home – as well as sheep, chickens and bees.
Oh, and there’s also Koko, an 80-pound Great Pyrenees, her farm dog. But he’s still getting this whole farm dog thing under control.
“What I think his job description is very different from what he thinks it is,” Patel notes.
She got him to protect the farm animals from the wild animals of the great Ponte Vedra, especially if he seems to just want to protect her, which involves a lot of weasel.
Backyard Buffalo is a micro-dairy that sells its products (yogurt is the most popular item) at local farmers’ markets.
Patel says she wasn’t sure at first to ask others to buy what she makes, but she’s comfortable with it now, quick with a smile and ready with sample after sample of. his goods.
She has gradually built up a stable group of regular customers, many of whom follow her buffaloes and farm life in Patel’s humorous and good-humored posts on Backyard Buffalo Facebook page.
It all started a few years ago. Patel craved the creamy, rich taste of the water buffalo milk she had grown up with in her native India, but she couldn’t find any that could deliver.
So she got Goldie, a gentle creature, from a farmer in New Jersey. Goldie later had a calf, Luna. More follow-up.
Patel was addicted to his new life caring for his buffaloes, giant horned creatures with an important connection to Florida: The first commercial water buffalo herd was established in America in 1975 through the ‘University of Florida.
“One thing I wasn’t sure was if I was going to be able to fall in love with them,” she said. “I wanted to be a good goalie, but I didn’t know if I had it 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 was not in keeping with the culture there.
“Part of the reason she wanted to come here, to get away from that kind of social avoidance that she was getting,” Patel said.
As a teenager, Patel said she was reluctant to go to America; she did not speak English and her whole life was in India.
But Lufkin, Texas, where the uncles lived, would soon become a new home for Patel, his sister, and their mother. Lufkin, however, was not how she had imagined America.
“It was in 1992, before the internet, and what I knew about America was from stories that I heard, that people reported,” she said. “I came here with the hope of going to a land of milk and honey – people said you get ice cream in a gallon bucket! We came to Lufkin and I thought, wait, this is like 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 North Florida when her doctor husband, Akash Sharma, took a position at the Mayo Clinic.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my 40s,” she said. “I’m glad I found this.”
She got invaluable help when she ran an ad for a “relief caterer” in a community newspaper. Dan Stone, who was mostly retired, answered the call. He thought it was better than doing Sudoku, and it put him in touch with his youth, having grown up on a dairy farm in upstate New York.
He gave valuable advice, participated in construction projects – the milking shed, chicken coop, drainage issues – and soon came to admire Patel, who was lugging 80-pound bags of concrete alongside him.
“She is dedicated to farming,” Stone said. “She’s committed to bringing good, healthy food to market in a way that gives her pleasure, maybe one day a monetary benefit. I think it’s safe to say she did it.
Stone still comes to Backyard Buffalo to volunteer, although he has since moved to near Daytona Beach. Stone said he had never seen Patel get discouraged by hard work.
“This is partly the immigration gene. If you’ve got 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 can do that, you can do just about anything. “
Patel agreed. “Absolutely. I think that was a defining moment when Mom left. These are tough things in life that you go through. But those tough things also change you and prepare you for the next challenges in life.
Patel said having water buffaloes instead of cows does not mean she has to follow special regulations, although the animals are used for milk production, they must be tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis every year. .
Selling what she made in Backyard Buffalo started slowly. At first, she sold plain buffalo yogurt, her favorite. It was not a success.
“I came home with all the products I went to the market with, I hardly sold anything for several weeks. Maybe several months, ”she said.
She was most successful when she started mixing flavors, trying to appeal to American palates.
Things got even better when she took the advice of her mother, Kokila, who lives with her and helps prepare the food.
Add Indian flavors, she tells her daughter. Soon his yogurts and dips had flavors such as cardamom, carrot-pickle, sour cherry, jalapeño pickle, and cucumber-onion.
As it turned out, people loved it and business was growing, especially at the Neptune Beach Market on Saturday afternoon, where Patel said he found a welcoming community with an adventurous palate.
His buffalo milk yogurts started to sell; 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 every week, telling her what they like.
“It just made me more daring, to do the market, to be accepted, little by little. Now we’re completely Indian with some of the things mom does. I do what mom used to do, what we have been doing so well for centuries.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082