IT’S been a hard autumn, winter and spring for farmers everywhere in Ireland — and there are precious few signs of it relenting any time soon.
Fodder is in seriously short supply — it’s being imported from the UK as we speak — and still there are doubts that this will be enough.
One man who is determined that his herds will continue to get the best of care and feeding is Johnny Lynch, who runs Macroom Buffalo Farm.
To say he loves every single one of his animals is no more than the truth.
“They are completely different to cattle,” says Johnny. “There’s something of the sheep in them, and something of the pig. They have no worries about mud and rain, that’s one good thing!”
We walk through the sheds where the magnificent black beasts with their characteristic widespread horns, are happily partaking of dinner.
In nearby pens, the latest baby arrivals are constantly monitored. They lift little trusting faces and suck eagerly at your fingers.
The first 30 water buffalo arrived at Lynch’s farm back in 2009. The farm itself has been there for generations on what is in fact part of the Muskerry Gaeltacht.
“Yes, we’re right on the edge of it: there was nothing but Irish spoken in this yard when I was growing up,” says Johnny.
Udaras na Gaeltachta was a great help in their starting up, says Johnny. So are the buffalo learning the cupla focal? “Well, I’d say they can understand what I’m telling them anyway!”
The popularity of the mozzarella cheese produced here soon led to an expansion of the original herd and more grazing was needed.
“We now lease 100 acres here and 100 acres there as well as our own land, and we have about 300 animals.”
Given it is such a niche business, Johnny is constantly in touch with buffalo farmers across Europe. “I was over in Germany a few weeks ago. We do a lot of business back and forth.”
Buffalo meat too is very much a rising star in the food world. It’s a healthy option and one that has been seized upon by butchers looking for new ways to tempt their customers.
“Eoin O’Mahony in the English Market in Cork takes a lot from me, and Hartnett’s in Macroom,” says Johnny. “The Auld Triangle in Macroom too, they serve it up on their menus and it’s been a big hit.”
Johnny’s wife, Geraldine, is down in the furthest reaches of the Beara Peninsula as we talk, delivering supplies of the much-desired product to Glengarriff, Castletownbere, Allihies and Eyeries. “It’s really taking off,” smiles Johnny,
But it’s the mozzarella that got the whole ball rolling, he adfds. And a ball that has been given a hefty push by major retailer Aldi.
Everyone must be familiar now with that delightful TV ad where Johnny sits confidently astride a splendid buffalo and trades ‘Ciao’ greetings with nuns buzzing by on mopeds.
“It was great fun doing that ad,” he confides, leaning on a pitchfork. “You wouldn’t believe how much work it took, though.
We had 46 of them here over a couple of days, and we had to do take after take until they were satisfied.”
Aldi looked after the whole thing, he says, with evident relief. Such advertising is up there in the big league.
But the supermarket chain were more than willing to do it to get the Lynch mozzarella cheese into their Irish stores, he says.
“They take a good share every week at the moment, and they’d take my entire product if they could!”
The rest is snatched up by supermarkets like SuperValu, Dunne’s, Tesco, plus many farmers’ markets across Co. Cork.
“At the moment, we’re producing about a tonne and a half a week, and we’d like to get that up to 2-2 ½ if we can,” he says,
“His right-hand man in this work is Sean Ferry, a renowned West Cork cheesemaker with 30 years of experience under his belt.
Johnny’s son Kieran Lynch also gives every spare moment to the farm, despite anticipating the Leaving Cert in a month or two.
“I love it,” adds Johnny. “It’s so interesting and there is always something going on. I tried work experience in an office but couldn’t stick it. Sitting in the same place all day, with the same temperature all the time — it’s not for me!”
His favourite beast is Black Beauty, who steals the show on the Aldi ad. “She’s really a pet,” he adds.
The Aldi ad opened many new doors for the Lynch enterprise. The experience also came in useful when they were contacted by the makers of the Vikings TV series last year.
“They wanted to use our animals in filming so we packed five of them into a lorry and off with us up to Wicklow,” he explains.
Johnny, his wife and Kieran all feature in the forthcoming sixth series, albeit heavily disguised in costumes representing somewhere on the Silk Road where East meets West. We will have to wait until next Christmas or thereabouts, though, to see that new series.
Meanwhile, the last of the haylage is spread out for the eager animals, and Johnny breaks off to give hasty instructions to one of his drivers.
“He’s going off to try and buy some more. Right now we’re getting it from the UK, but they’re short enough themselves, so I don’t know what we will do next, with this bad weather we’ve been having for so long.”
One thing is certain, though, as far as Johnny is concerned. His buffalo are not going to go short.
“I’d feed them before I’d feed myself, and that’s the truth.”
Macroom Buffalo Farm, Kilnamartyra, Macroom, Co. Cork. macroombuffalocheese.com