In 2009, Craig Ramini walked into the Farm Advisor’s Office with a neat bundle of plans and a big bundle of focused energy. He told us that he wanted to build a water buffalo herd, milk them, and make traditional, Italian style mozzarella cheese - fresh and local. OK. We are accustomed to innovative and alternative agricultural plans and ambitions here at the Farm Advisor’s quarters. Some of this gets cooked up right here in our cloistered conference room - the Barinaga sheep cheese project had its genesis here. So Craig’s project, although exotic, seemed like it might grow legs, and we started hanging out with him and watching the enterprise grow.
Craig was in homework mode when he left for the northeast to work with a water buffalo herdsman and learn a little about management, health, and breeding. Then he took off for New Zealand to work for a few weeks at an Australian farmstead buffalo mozzarella operation, returning to the U.S. just in time to pick up a small herd of water buffalo from Los Angeles. At that point, we had no worries that Craig was not serious! All he needed was a place to settle down with his ladies.
Here is where it got interesting. After a few months pasturing his herd in Sonoma County, Craig connected with the Tomales Poncia family: Al, his wife Cathy, and his son Loren, who run Stemple Creek Ranch, Loren’s organic grass-fed beef operation. They hit it off, and Craig moved his growing herd to Tomales, where he began to restore the old family dairy barn and added water buffalo and his infectious energy to the Poncia family’s Gericke Road operation. Craig looks to have a combined dairy and cheesemaking operation side by side, with a little shop and place for lovers of fresh, authentic mozzarella to enjoy. This could be a spectacular event, with the lush green grass (Al and Loren are exceptional grass farmers), coastal coolness, and authentic ranch ambiance.
The Poncia Ranch was established in 1902 by Loren’s grandfather, Angelo Poncia, then was passed to Al, and now is being run by Loren. The Poncias are cautious farmers, but also know an opportunity when they see one. Loren’s venture into organically grown and certified grass-fed beef and lamb has proved to be promising. The family’s support of the Ramini mozzarella operation is a bold move, much like the partnership between Kitty and Doug Dolcini and vegetable farmer David Retsky of County Line Harvest. These are old-school ranchers joining with newer entrepreneurs to diversify their operations in order to maximize shared resources.
Craig has been carefully navigating a steep learning curve. Right now, he is working on special hardware for his custom milking barn. These water buffalo have not been milked before; they are not used to it. Plus, they have huge horns, meaning getting them into the milking stalls presents some engineering challenges. Every day Craig leads them into the barn, calves alongside mother cows, and takes them through the routine, preparing them for eventual milking duties.
Craig is eager to start making mozzarella cheese, and will begin with a cow’s milk version next month, eventually working into the planned traditional buffalo milk.
This whole story speaks of the intent to add value to our products. Already Craig is homogenizing the vertical steps of the value chain into one fresh and local stream. From the breed to the consumer, it’s all about adding value. The location, the originality of the product, and the personality of the proprietor all give an intangible, yet real value. Desmond Jolly, former head of UC Small Farm Center, once said, “It’s you, the farmer that adds value to your product.” Amen.