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Beyond Borders: A Unique Journey Unfolds – How an Australian Couple's Mid-Life Crisis Ignited the Birth of Laos' First Buffalo Dairy Farm

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In the enchanting UNESCO-listed heritage town of Luang Prabang, a unique dairy venture is changing the culinary landscape with an unexpected twist – buffalo milk. Enter Laos Buffalo Dairy, the country's pioneering dairy and buffalo farm, an endeavor that blossomed from an Australian couple's midlife odyssey.

Susie Martin, the dynamic CEO, and her husband, Steven McWhirter, the farm's adept General Manager, initially set foot in Laos from Singapore with a one-year plan to run a guest house. Little did they know that the absence of buffalo milk, a key ingredient for the delectable yogurt they admired in Sri Lanka, would propel them into a whole new venture. Undeterred, they decided to fill this gap in 2017, realizing the burgeoning demand for dairy products, including the famed mozzarella, from local hotels and restaurants.

Applying the savvy acquired in commercial real estate, Martin conceived the idea: "If you can rent an office space, you can rent a buffalo." Thus, the innovative social enterprise of Laos Buffalo Dairy was born, embodying their midlife crisis "with a purpose instead of a Porsche," as proudly declared on a sign at the farm.

Villagers from the surroundings of Luang Prabang embark on journeys of up to two hours, bringing their pregnant buffalos to the farm. Explaining the meticulous process, Rachel O'Shea, the executive chef and GM of production at Laos Buffalo Dairy, details the buffalo's arrival at eight months pregnant. Once on-site, the buffalo undergoes quarantine, health checks, vaccinations, and milking training. After giving birth, the mother refrains from milking for the first three weeks, ensuring the calf exclusively benefits from its nutrient-rich early days. Subsequently, the mother is milked only once a day, leaving the rest for the calf.

Remarkably, the farmers are compensated at the end of the buffalo's rental period, receiving a lump sum of around $100 per buffalo, a significant sum in a country where the average monthly salary hovers around $120. The buffalo, along with its calf, then return home with the farmer until the cycle recommences at eight months' pregnancy.

Traditionally used for plowing rice fields, buffalos in Laos faced a changing fate with the advent of tractors. Owners began selling their buffalos to meet various needs, from funding their children's education to covering medical expenses or financing weddings. In this picturesque corner of Southeast Asia, the Laos Buffalo Dairy not only embraces a unique culinary venture but also revitalizes the role of buffalos in the community, adding a distinctive chapter to Luang Prabang's cultural and gastronomic narrative.

In the heart of Laos, the Laos Buffalo Dairy has become more than just a farm; it's a transformative force, redefining the role of buffalos in the local community while crafting a culinary niche that tantalizes taste buds. Susie Martin, the visionary CEO, refers to the buffalos as a literal "Buffalo Bank," their value standing at approximately $1,000, constituting a staggering 50% of a farmer's annual income.

However, as the sale of male buffalos increased, an insidious inbreeding cycle emerged, leading to a diminished, less robust buffalo breed. Recognizing this challenge, the Laos Buffalo Dairy initiated a groundbreaking breeding program, sanctioned by the Laos government. Martin explains, "We use different bulls with females from various villages to produce healthier offspring. These thriving young buffalos then return to their villages alongside their mothers."

Convincing local farmers of the program's merits proved to be an uphill battle, requiring 18 months to dispel initial skepticism. Rachel O'Shea, the executive chef and GM of production, recalls the farmers' initial misgivings, suspecting the offer was too good to be true. "They thought we were going to 'barbecue their buffalo,'" she says with a chuckle. The comprehensive care package offered by the dairy, covering vaccination, feeding, birthing assistance, milk compensation, and the potential for improved genetics, initially seemed too fantastical.

Now boasting 85 buffalo on the farm, with aspirations to reach 150 by 2024, the Laos Buffalo Dairy has become a sought-after refuge for buffalo owners seeking a better future for their animals. O'Shea notes with amusement, "We get random calls from farmers asking us to take their buffalo in. Sometimes, when we ask how pregnant she is, they say, 'Oh, it's a boy.' To which we have to respond, 'Sorry! We don't take boys.'"

Yet, the journey wasn't without its financial hurdles. Martin recounts, "No one wanted to support us; they all thought we were crazy." Undeterred, the couple sold their houses in Australia and the US, channeling the funds into their ambitious venture.

From the milk of these well-cared-for buffalos, O'Shea and her team craft some of Laos' rarest and most delectable products – cheese. The farm has opened its doors to tourists in Luang Prabang, inviting them to savor creations ranging from caprese salad to pumpkin pie ice cream, available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Guided tours provide insight into the dairy's innovative practices, with plans for a future wine and cheese tour.

The menu boasts an array of cheeses, including bocconcini, ricotta, blue cheese, feta, burrata (available on request), yogurt, and the crowd-favorite mozzarella. Future endeavors include the addition of brie, parmesan, cheddar, and the hope of introducing goat cheese. The dairy's aspirations also extend to an exciting collaboration with Laos' first cocoa producer, Chocolate Dream, to craft a tantalizing cookie dough-flavored ice cream. In the lush landscapes of Laos, the Laos Buffalo Dairy stands as a testament to visionary thinking, sustainable practices, and a commitment to crafting culinary delights that transcend borders.

Nestled amid the serene surroundings of Luang Prabang, the impact of Laos Buffalo Dairy extends far beyond its picturesque landscapes. The symbiotic relationship with nearby hotels such as La Résidence Phou Vao, A Belmond Hotel, and the upcoming Avani+ Luang Prabang and Rosewood Luang Prabang has woven a culinary thread, introducing guests to the dairy's exceptional cheeses at breakfast buffets and in hotel restaurants. Rachel O'Shea, the driving force behind the dairy's culinary endeavors, emphasizes the pivotal role hotels and restaurants play in the farm's ecosystem. "The more establishments purchase from us, the more tourists visit the farm, indulging in our products. Consequently, this enables us to collaborate with more farmers, expanding our ability to source buffalo for milking," explains O'Shea.

As travelers arrive at the farm, the first sounds that greet them might be the playful squeals of pigs rather than the traditional buffalo bells. The farm's holistic approach extends beyond dairy production to encompass animal husbandry programs, incorporating pigs and rabbits. O'Shea sheds light on the innovative techniques employed, using locally accessible materials for structures like the pig pen. "We repurpose byproducts of the harvest, such as rice husk, traditionally burned and harmful to the environment. Instead, we utilize them as bedding for contented, healthy pigs, later repurposing it as natural fertilizer after three to four months."

Addressing a significant concern in Laos, the farm dedicates itself to combating malnutrition, particularly among children. The World Bank reports that nearly 35% of Lao children suffer from malnourishment. Leveraging the sustainable and nutrient-rich qualities of buffalo milk, the dairy initiates programs aimed at mothers and child nutrition. Over the past five years, three programs have unfolded, strategically designed to enhance nutritional support in the crucial first 1,000 days of a child's life. The dairy team has gone a step further, creating a complimentary recipe book for locals, offering creative ways to incorporate buffalo milk into traditional Laotian dishes. This transformative initiative has expanded to include goats, a groundbreaking move in Laos, and has extended its reach into neighboring Cambodia.

Beyond culinary and agricultural endeavors, the farm envisions a broader impact, planning to reintroduce free English classes for its 40 Laotian team members and local school children. A program temporarily halted during the challenges of the Covid pandemic, it underscores the farm's commitment to holistic community development.

Despite facing hardships during the global shutdown, the farm, led by the visionary Susie Martin, remains unwavering in its commitment to environmental stewardship. By choosing local buffalos over imported cows and opting for a rental model rather than creating a proprietary dairy herd, Laos Buffalo Dairy champions an eco-conscious approach, ensuring a sustainable and impactful legacy in the enchanting landscapes of Luang Prabang.

"As the world emerges from the shadow of the Covid pandemic, the prospect of a tourism resurgence becomes not just a beacon of hope but a catalyst for positive change. In the context of Laos Buffalo Dairy, this signifies more than just an uptick in visitor numbers; it represents an amplified capacity to make a difference. With every returning traveler, the potential to extend a helping hand grows. The ripple effect of tourism recovery holds the promise of reaching more lives, supporting local farmers, and advancing the multifaceted initiatives of the dairy farm.

The correlation is clear: as tourism recovers and increases, so does the scope of our impact. Beyond the economic revitalization, each tourist contributes to the broader mission of sustainability, community development, and nutritional support. It's a synergy where the revival of one industry becomes a catalyst for positive change in others. The resilience of the tourism sector thus becomes intertwined with the resilience of local communities, creating a harmonious cycle of support and growth.

The journey toward recovery is not just a return to normalcy but an opportunity to build a better, more resilient future. For Laos Buffalo Dairy, the post-Covid era is a canvas on which the strokes of progress are painted by the footsteps of travelers. Each visitor not only partakes in the unique culinary offerings but also becomes a participant in a larger narrative of community empowerment, environmental stewardship, and holistic well-being.

So, as tourism recovers and increases, the echoes of positive change reverberate through the lush landscapes of Luang Prabang. The more people we welcome, the more lives we touch, and the greater the positive imprint we collectively leave on the path to a brighter, more sustainable tomorrow."

"In conclusion, as Laos Buffalo Dairy looks ahead to a post-Covid future, the intertwining threads of tourism recovery and community impact weave a narrative of resilience and positive change. The prospect of an increasing influx of travelers signifies not only economic rejuvenation but, more importantly, an expanded capacity to uplift lives. The dairy farm's commitment to sustainable practices, community development, and nutritional support finds its echo in the returning footsteps of tourists.

The recovery of the tourism sector is not merely a return to pre-pandemic norms; it's an opportunity to redefine and fortify the bonds between travelers and local communities. With every visitor, the dairy farm's mission gains momentum, reaching more farmers, supporting environmental stewardship, and fostering holistic well-being.

In the lush landscapes of Luang Prabang, where the echoes of buffalo bells blend with the laughter of children, tourism becomes a force for positive change. The narrative of resilience, forged during challenging times, now transforms into a tale of growth and sustainability. As we eagerly anticipate the resurgence of tourism, we also celebrate the enduring spirit of collaboration, ensuring that each traveler contributes not just to their own experience but to the collective journey toward a brighter and more sustainable tomorrow."

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