You may be familiar with the journey of bison farmer Steve Mitchell, as he has appeared on various TV shows such as Channel 4’s Tricky Business, Gordon Ramsay F word, BBC’s Landward and This Farming Life.
However, it recently struck a deal to supply its Fife-produced Buffalo Scotch mozzarella to all Aldi stores in Scotland. It is therefore a cause for great celebration and my excuse to visit the farm and get closer to the herd to try my hand at milking.
Steve comes from at least six previous generations of farmers, so there must be something in his genes.
His father was tragically killed in a farm accident when Steve was young, but despite this he said, “I was very drawn to the farm.”
After his death, Steve’s uncle and aunt took over the management of the farm which saw great changes with the sale of his father’s cattle.
Steve’s mother realized his talents lay in herding rather than academia, so she supported his interest in farming and bought him some Simmentals to start her own herd.
She died when he was a teenager but she had encouraged him to study agriculture at university; “To be honest, I don’t know how I got in. It was probably the fact that I had hands-on experience with my herd of cows and during the interview they saw my passion and that I deserved an opportunity.”
He adds, “I’m really glad I was able to do this for her.”
What’s your beef
After college he worked with purebred Aberdeen Angus cattle in the Borders; “I was in awe of the family I worked for and the years of hard work that had gone into achieving an incredible quality of animals.”
But he realized that being a serious purebred beef farmer required huge capital with no guarantee of success.
Instead, he started working with his uncle at Pork Puddledub; “I loved doing farmers markets for him because he was selling a great product, and hearing people rave about him is what really inspired me.”
Steve wanted a similar business, but had to come up with something with a USP
He opted for the buffalo because it is versatile and the breeding is massive on a global scale. (12% of the world’s milk is produced by the buffalo.)
He first ordered some buffalo meat to taste and was impressed.” He then managed to persuade the bank to support him and invested his inheritance to buy a herd from a farmer.
He bought 100 buffaloes, some to raise and keep while the others were to be fattened for meat.
The plan was to produce milk to eventually make mozzarella, but the initial investment required was prohibitive.
Buffaloes are similar to cattle in diet but have a reputation for being destructive, Steve said, “they’re a bit like me, they can be a bit clumsy”.
So they need strong fences. “They see normal fences as a bit of a scratching spot, but they’re amazing forage converters, which is why they’ve thrived in some pretty poor parts of the world,” he said.
They also thrive in the Scottish climate; “And they like to wallow in a mud hole,” he said.
In winter, buffaloes go indoors like beef cattle. Steve admits his customers educated him on mozzarella; “I tried a few but couldn’t quite see what they were about.”
But when Nick Nairn told him to get into mozzarella, but when Gordon Ramsay visited the farm, he started to take the idea seriously.
Gordon Ramsay had planned to film Steve’s buffalo meat production, but the filming schedule changed and they were going to be scrapped.
But the team asked Steve if there was a way to make buffalo mozzarella. Initially he said no, but 24 hours later he reconsidered and agreed that they could film their first ever cheese tryout.
He said: “Having now done correctly, I don’t know how it worked out.”
Steve rounded up a few of his buffaloes, brought them to the barn, milked them by hand, then made mozzarella in his aunt and uncle’s kitchen with the help of two experts the next morning .
Steve said, “The product was really good, I thought, wait a minute, I know what people are talking about now.”
So he took a study trip to Italy and discovered; “In places like Naples, mozzarella is almost a religion.”
Turning this into reality in Fife was not easy, a low point came when its funding failed.
He persevered and crowdfunded instead; he said, “I believe things happen for a reason, at the time it was absolutely terrible, but we’ve done it now with our founding investors.”
The whole experience was enriching with all kinds of people who believed, invested and defended the farm.
The deal with Aldi has now given Steve the confidence to grow further and know he can repay his founders, he said: “It wouldn’t have happened without them.”
Aldi has been very supportive and Steve plans to emulate the success of a similar company in Ireland.
Steve is grateful to everyone who helped, but especially to Jim Ritchie, the project manager who oversaw the set-up of all production at the mozzarella factory, and to head cheesemaker Juan Vicente Reggeti.
Juan is originally from Venezuela where his family raises buffaloes, he came to visit the farm and Steve explains “we haven’t really let him go since”.
When I visited, Adam Porter, the herd manager, showed me how the milking process works and then let me try.
The majestic beasts are milked twice a day, at 7am and again in the afternoon and line up at their door at milking time before slowly strolling through the milking shed. Steve said: “They are creatures of habit, buffaloes like routine.”
Buffalo’s milk is 8.5% fat compared to cow’s which is 4% and it has more protein, but the downside is that you only get a quarter of the milk compared to a normal cow.
In the milking parlour, all the ladies wear high-tech collars to control the amount of food they receive during machine milking.
Steve tells us that one of the things he doesn’t like about bison is that they are bullies.
They must watch their behavior closely because they can attack an animal and prevent it from eating and drinking,
He said: “I don’t know how it feels to become the victim, but we have to take it out and reintroduce it in a month, it’s like it upset somebody.”
Steve knows from personal experience the damage a buffalo can do; “I was doing a photo shoot, and I wasn’t paying attention and a very young calf walked towards me, the mother was a protective mum.”
He suffered severe puncture wounds and spent a month in hospital.
There are currently four bulls on the farm whose job is to maintain a constant flow of female buffalo calves to provide a constant supply of milk for cheese making.
48 hours after birth the calves are taken away from their mothers, Steve said: “It was something that made me feel uncomfortable at first but actually they haven’t really bonded and they’re just desperate to get back on the pitch with their buddies.”
The young male calves are then kept for 2 1/2 years before being destined for slaughter.
Soon the success of the farm will mean that they will no longer be able to produce enough milk to grow further. Steve therefore hopes to persuade other Scottish farmers to consider milking buffaloes.
spread the word
Steve is married to Sarah and the couple have two children, Harry 2 1/2 and Daisy who is 6 months old, “Harry is very into tractors while Daisy is desperate to kick in the calves.”
Going forward Steve’s plan is to refine what they already do, update the website and he said “I hope to do some youtube as I have seen this as my out of the office and a way to keep track of what’s going on behind the scenes of bison ranching.”
He adds, “I’m very lucky that people are interested and it’s helped our business tremendously. If people want to hear from us, then the most important thing is to whet their appetite to buy the product and that’s what really matters.”
He adds: “It’s very nice that we now have this momentum with Aldi which will help us enormously.”
It’s been a rollercoaster ride so far, so let’s see what happens next at the bison farm.