As entries open for this year’s Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards, we take a look at the remarkable rise of a former winner, The Buffalo Farm.
A full herd stampede attack, an escapee buffalo and the day-to-day rigours of managing 400 beasts hasn’t dampened Auchtertool farmer Steve Mitchell’s love of the animals he’s brought to his family farm in Fife.
“They’re a fantastic animal,” he said. “They’re very intelligent. They learn and respond quickly, and they’re self-sufficient.”
But, not being native to Scotland, they’re not necessarily an animal an enterprising young farmer might naturally decide upon when looking to launch a livestock business. So what led Steve to buffalo?
“The Mitchell family have been farmers for five generations. It was definitely in my blood – it was what I excelled at.”
When his father was killed in an accident when Steve was young, the task of running the family farm, Clentrie, fell to his uncle and aunt. But as he got older he began to consider how he could build a business himself. He swiftly disregarded cattle, as the market was already flooded with plenty of very good quality beef, and tried to find something unique, considering crocodile, ostrich, and alpaca.
“But buffalo won out” he said, “because it’s a very, very good product. It’s tasty, low in saturated fat, extremely lean, high in protein.”
The banks didn’t initially share Steve’s enthusiasm: “This was 12 years ago, the point where banks were handing out money to anyone who asked – but they said no to us.
“Then we were contacted by Channel 4, who wanted to feature us in a show they were doing called ‘Tricky Business’ about young entrepreneurs launching unusual businesses. They were very excited by the prospect of a buffalo farm, and wanted to follow my progress.
“So I didn’t tell them the banks said no. Instead, I contacted the bank to tell them Channel 4 would be following my business progress, and asked them if they could give a comprehensive answer as to why they’d said no to take back to Channel 4. Naturally, the bank reversed their decision!
“We got our money – but that turned out to be the easy bit.”
Starting with 100 water buffalo originally from Italy and Romania, sourced from a farm in Wales, Steve and his team worked diligently to build a butchery farm that operated at a viable economy of scale, knowing that buffalo sales were not enough to make them competitive.
“Obviously our name is The Buffalo Farm, so people are surprised to hear that buffalo is only 15% of what we sell. We also sell poultry, venison, beef and lamb.”
His aunt and uncle run Puddledub Pork, selling award-winning pork and bacon products, also based at Clentrie Farm.
Steve himself now manages more than 400 buffalo, with a view to extending that number this year to diversify into mozzarella and milk.
Perils of the job
Of course, the prospect of herding ruminants that average half a tonne in weight and have enormous horns is one most people would approach with a reasonable degree of caution. This was a lesson Steve learnt first-hand in 2012, when he was stampeded by his own herd.
“I’d gotten too close to a calf during a photo shoot. A mother thought the calf was in danger, and its instinct was to protect it, so she charged me, letting out a war-cry, so the whole herd powered in.
While Steve played dead, the herd dragged him 50 metres across the paddock, during which time he sustained multiple injuries. The photographer on the shoot managed to scatter the herd by driving his truck through them.
Having made a full recovery, Steve’s nevertheless as enthusiastic about buffalos as ever, noting that they were merely acting in the interests of the herd.
Bert the errant buffalo
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates Steve’s dedication to his stock than what happened to Bert, a buffalo calf that got spooked last December during weighing, jumped the fence and escaped into a nearby forest.
“When Bert escaped, we used Facebook to try and find volunteers to help find him in the thick wood land. We had more press show up than people!
“Buffalos don’t like to be apart from their herd, but when they do get separated their instinct is to hide.”
Steve was so concerned about Bert’s wellbeing that he didn’t touch a single drink on his own stag do. “I was convinced he was going to appear, and I would have to swing into action to retrieve him. It was just one of those sacrifices you had to make.”
It was a relief, then, when Bert came back of his own accord and settled in the barn with the rest of the herd just before Christmas. He’s now considered the farm’s mascot.
Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards
In 2016, The Buffalo Farm won the coveted best meat category at the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards, for their buffalo fillet steak, a source of tremendous validation for Steve and his team. “We were completely delighted; it really was a breakthrough moment for the business. We were up against brands I hold in high regard.”
The award was taste tested, with Steve’s buffalo meat going up against laudable beef offerings: “It shows how tasty buffalo meat is. We felt a great sense of satisfaction that we were doing something worthwhile and appreciated.”
The Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards 2018 are calling for entries from the cream of the crop of Scotland's Food and Drink industry - those businesses and individuals who are leading the way with innovation, enterprise, and quality.
For more information, or to enter, visit http://www.foodanddrink.scot/events/sfd-excellence-awards