GROWING UP ON his family’s farm in Macroom, Co Cork, Johnny Lynch has always been well acquainted with dairy cows.
Milking cattle had been the family business for generations until a decline in the market forced Lynch to consider other means of making a living.
“It was something we’d always done here at home on the farm. But in 2009 the milk price dropped to 20c a litre and we weren’t making money any more,” he tells Fora.
Lynch decided that a major change was needed to breathe new life into his business – so he turned his attention to buffaloes.
“We knew a farm over in England that had buffaloes so we went to see them and find out more,” he says.
Lynch discovered the advantages to farming buffaloes, which live three times longer than a Friesian cow. The switch would also allow him to carve out a niche in the Irish market.
“Every other cheese was being made in Ireland, from sheep milk and goat milk, but there was nobody making buffalo cheese,” he says.
In 2009, Lynch took the plunge and imported 31 buffaloes from Northern Italy, bringing them back to his farm in Cork.
“You know when we brought them in first, all the neighbours were in fits of laughter,” he says.
“A lot of people would have said I was mad then, but now it seems to be going from strength to strength.”
Nearly a decade after importing his first buffalo, Lynch now has a herd of about 350 in total.
Adjusting to the animals was a big deal for the farmer, largely because of their size, which meant that a lot of investment was required to modify his farm.
“It was a massive change. There was loads of extra work – everything had to be fenced around and big strong gates had to go up. The milking parlour had to be changed because buffaloes have horns so they won’t fit where a cow’s head would have.”
Buffaloes wouldn’t be associated with traditional Irish farming, yet the country’s cool climate suits them. Lynch says he’s not sure why nobody else thought to bring the animal here.
“The weather here is perfect for them. They love wet, mild weather,” he says.
“You think of buffaloes in Italy, but they actually hate the heat. When it goes over 20 degrees, which we had in the last couple of weeks, the amount of milk they produce drops because they get stressed out.”
In 2015, once the animals had settled and were producing milk, Lynch branched into making his own cheese – Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella.
After that, the next challenge was getting his product into shops.
“Aldi approached us first and took us on for a few months. Then we had the confidence that it would work and we went out on our own from there.”
Although the cheese is now sold in supermarkets and smaller stores across the country, the business was given a boost from appearing in a national ad campaign for Aldi last year.
“It was a huge experience. We had 47 people here on the farm for two days from seven in the morning to seven in the evening,” Lynch says.
“There was a lot of excitement. My young fella said we ride the animals all the time, which wasn’t really true, but that’s how I got stuck with that job. I was thrown off the animal about seven or eight times, which wasn’t seen at all in the ad.”
Novelty aside, Lynch says that the ad campaign had a major effect in terms of generating interest and brand recognition.
“It was huge for the business – not just for cheese, but we also sell meat from the male animals as well.
“So when you go into places and you’re trying to shift the meat, once you say who you are, they know you from the ad and you automatically get talking.”
Producing such a niche product has both its advantages and its disadvantages, according to Lynch.
“We’re the only crowd that are milking buffaloes in Ireland so we’ve the market to ourselves at the moment.
“It’s great in ways because we’re on our own, but in other ways when you want help, there’s nobody there who knows about the animals,” he says.
Between farming and cheese making, Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella now has a team of 13 people, but it is often difficult to recruit new staff as they aren’t familiar with buffalo farming.
“You forget what a big change it is until you have a new employee. We took on a couple of new people recently that were used to milking Friesian cows and it’s a complete change for them,” Lynch says.
“Now we’re training these people up so they’ll be able to farm the buffaloes right.”
Money was also an issue, particularly due to the high upfront costs of purchasing buffaloes and making appropriate changes to the farm.
Lynch says that funding from State agency Údarás na Gaeltachta was crucial for the business’s growth: “We got employment grants, we got machinery grants, and without those I don’t think we would have come out of the first couple of years to be honest.”
Last year, profits at Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella tripled to nearly €170,000.
Lynch has just secured a €1 million, two-year mozzarella contract with Aldi, which he says will provide the security to help build the business further.
“We’ll have a new farm, which is going to swallow money, and the cheese plant is always swallowing money – so there’ll be plenty of homes for the investment.”
Lynch has also dipped his toe into the production of other cheeses on a small-scale basis, including ricotta and halloumi, but says that a lot more investment would be required to develop these fully.
So for now, the main focus is still on mozzarella, as well as a potential international expansion plan.
“We haven’t started exporting at all yet. England would have been our first port of call, but with the likes of Brexit coming down the line, we put the brakes on that.”
“We’re thinking about it again now, but we don’t know where to go first really.”
Lynch thinks that there’s still plenty of demand and room for growth in Ireland, and says he’d be happy with a steady 20-30% sales growth over the next few years.
“To be honest I never could have dreamt it would go as well as it did. If you asked me three years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be as far as I am now.”
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