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Finding home among a herd of water buffalo
February 18th, 2010
Dubi Ayalon gets close with Shelly, a water buffalo on his farm in central Wisconsin. The former Israeli officer and school principal owns Wisconsin’s only water buffalo herd.
In the way of any self-respecting epic figure, Dubi Ayalon would strongly object to being portrayed as one. He isn’t looking for fame and the last thing he wants is attention.
His favorite adjectives are unprintable. His leftist political views about Israel are informed by the 52 years he lived there, 24 of them as a career soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. After a short stint as a police officer, he spent 10 years as a teacher and school administrator working with at-risk teenagers.
Then, four years ago, he, his wife Mihal Davis and their now 6-year-old son Erez moved to south central Wisconsin.
That tenacity is the answer to the inevitable question about how a man with no idea of how many udders there are on a cow becomes the sole proprietor of Wisconsin’s only water buffalo herd.
Dubi Ayalon chose the farm without even visiting the property, partially because of the chicken wire Star of David on the silo.
Water buffalo — or jamoosim, in Hebrew — were not on Ayalon’s radar screen when he and Davis decided to leave Israel. His original plan was to be an over-the-road truck driver; the decision to settle in rural Wisconsin was about peace and quiet.
“Since I was 19 I have been dealing with people,” Ayalon said. “I need my peace. I don’t need any kind of daily-based responsibility that has to do with anything with people besides my family.”
Family was at the heart of the move. Although born in Israel of Israeli parents, Davis lived in Chicago from the time she was 10. She met Ayalon during a 1994 visit to Israel after college before starting graduate studies in naturopathic medicine. At the time, he was a single father co-parenting three daughters with his ex-wife.
After Davis and Ayalon’s marriage and Erez’s birth, Davis wanted to be closer to her family, but neither wanted to leave before the girls were grown.So they stayed and continued to build their lives.
Eight years later, with Ayalon’s daughter in her 20s, they had built successful careers. Davis had recently been named one of Israel’s top 10 naturopathic doctors and Ayalon was doing wonders with his students, he recalls.
“We were on the top of the hill. I told Mihal, ‘This is the time to leave.’”
Unexpected would not be a bad way to sum up Ayalon’s first Wisconsin winter.
Like immigrant heads of household everywhere, he was the first to arrive at the farm he had only seen in pictures. The couple discovered it on the Internet, and Davis’ family inspected it pre-purchase.
Although asked to leave a Jerusalem yeshiva because “the rabbi told me, ‘You are the worst. You know about Judaism, you know about your religion and still you don’t believe,’” they chose the house in part because of what he saw as a sign — a handmade, chicken wire Star of David nailed to the silo.
As it turned out, rather than trying to attract Jews, the previous owner tried unsuccessfully to make a five-pointed Star of Bethlehem, the one that drew the Magi to Baby Jesus.
What Ayalon found was a Midwestern mess. The pipes had burst, part of the ceiling had collapsed and the basement was full of water. Outside, en route to enlist help from his nearest neighbor, he slipped on ice and fell, aggravating a 20-year-old back injury that had occurred in the Sinai when the camel he was riding bucked him into a palm tree. His trucking career was over before it started.
Neighbors with sump pumps showed him how to turn off the well and empty the basement. By the time Erez and Davis arrived, the house was dry. She began building an acupuncture practice in Prairie du Sac and working one day a week at the University of Wisconsin Hospital’s cancer ward.
For Ayalon, career options were not as clear. Although highly literate in Hebrew, his limited ability to read and write in English combined with his desire for a solitary career left few options.
Then Davis read in a magazine about water buffalo mozzarella, common in Italy and considered the “true” mozzarella. Creamier and sweeter than its cow’s milk counterpart, the cheese is rare and expensive. With only two water buffalo herds in the United States, it commanded retail prices of approximately $20 per pound.
For a guy with 52 acres of land and a barn who loves the challenge of building something from scratch, it looked perfect. Except for one thing: Despite the romantic notion some American Jews have about Israelis living close to the earth, most urban, college-educated former high school principals in Israel know as much about farming as most urban, college-educated former high school principals in the US. In other words, nothing.
So, he called Moshav Bitzaron near Ashdod, and spoke to the owner of Israel’s only water buffalo herd. He got the best possible advice, although he didn’t realize it at the time.
“You want to raise water buffalo in the U.S.? Call the U.S., you yored!” the man told him, using the derogatory term for an Israeli who leaves the state, Ayalon recalls.
Ayalon’s next call was to Woodstock Water Buffalo Company, the first commercial herd in the US. Kent Underwood, then the farm’s manager, invited him to visit.
“He was so nice, and so helpful,” Ayalon said. “And as soon as I saw (the water buffalo), I fell in love with those animals.”
Underwood’s response, he said, was yet another graphic illustration of the differences he was discovering between Israelis and Americans, something for which he was completely unprepared.
“When I came to the US, I had a presumption about Americans,” he said, “I thought they were stupid, arrogant and loud.”
Upon his return from Vermont, Ayalon tapped the Sauk County UW-Extension agent for help with a business plan and contacted a local veterinarian.
He read books, communicated with Italian water buffalo industry experts, and spent time at a neighbor’s farm learning to milk cows. He also worked a brief stint at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, in order to understand cheesemaking. He is in regular contact with Underwood, whom he refers to as “my guru.”
In the process, Ayalon has learned to appreciate the differences between urban, rural and small-town life and the Americans in those locales. He has also acquired the same degree of respect for wisdom and knowledge acquired as a result of lived experience that he once reserved exclusively for those whose knowledge was acquired in college classrooms.
“They are not stupid, my neighbors. They know things I could only dream about knowing and how to do things so that it doesn’t seem like they’re doing things.”
To illustrate his point, he tells a story. Twice daily, Ayalon lays straw over the manure so his water buffalo can lie down comfortably.
“When it’s super cold, you have to do it three [times],” Erez interjected.
“They’re Asian water buffalo, like in Vietnam,” Ayalon said. “I’m doing the bedding at least twice a day in the winter. That’s the only way to keep them warm and they’re lying one on top of the other, like 15 buffalo on top of each other.
“I used to look down all the time at the straw (and ask myself) ‘Is it nice?’” he said. “And I asked my neighbor if he would come to see if I was doing it correctly, and he said, ‘Your animals look clean.’”
The observation startled Ayalon. He’d been focusing on the process; his neighbor was looking at the outcome.
“He is looking at the result, not what I’m doing,” he said. “This approach, it’s something else, and I appreciate it.”
Though certainly an anomaly in his majority Catholic town, Ayalon has not sensed any animosity toward him as an Israeli and a Jew.
On the contrary, neighbors have taken steps to show authentic respect, he said, recalling how one friend displayed a chanukiyah when he invited the Ayalons for Christmas dinner.
They were stunned when, at the holiday celebration at Erez’s elementary school, one class lit a chanukiyah and another sang “Shalom Aleichem.”
Currently, Ayalon has 10 water buffalo cows, one bull, one steer and 10 calves — five male and five female.
When they first arrived, in summer of 2007, they began getting sick and three cows died. It turned out that his lush fields were too rich for the buffalo’s digestive systems. But there were other challenges, too.
“It took half a year to train those buffalos,” he said. Four came from California and their owner had treated them well. But the buffalo that he bought from a Florida man had been raised with crocodiles, which consider water buffalo prey. It took him longer to get that group to trust him.
“Every morning and every afternoon I called them in with grain,” he said. Ayalon also used music to train his animals. While it’s a safe bet that few Wisconsin farmers call their animals into the barn with a song, it’s probably even safer to assume that only one herd equates “Avinu Malkeynu” with “Dinner is served!”
Ayalon’s next challenge is to persuade his 10 cows to let him milk them.
“A water buffalo teaches you modesty,” he said. “She will not give milk until I find a way to make her, to bring her to the place where she’s willing to give me milk. There is no other way. You cannot chain them and beat them and order them.”
This is something he learned first-hand, after he forcibly milked one cow, who had repeatedly kicked him when he initially tried to milk her.
“She won’t listen anymore,” he said. “Water buffalo remember.”
Ayalon has learned to rely on local experts and his neighbors for help with technical questions. But when it comes to figuring out how to get a 770-pound animal with sharp, curved horns and a strong will to stand still long enough to let a skinny man relieve her of her milk, Ayalon has turned to a different expert.
“[Nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche used to say that there are two types of behavior,” he said. “The king’s moral and the slave’s moral. The king’s moral means he will say, ‘I want this to happen.’ The slave moral will find a way to make the thing happen. I’m in the slave type of moral. I need to find a way that the king is willing to do exactly what I am asking him to do — and the water buffalo is king.
“Raising buffalo is as simple as that,” he said. “It’s holding the power without any power in your hand.
Given Ayalon’s disdain for banks, the Nietzsche analogy is particularly apt. Until this past fall, the family had managed to finance the farm free of bank debt, something he had hoped to avoid entirely.
But for the farm to be viable, Ayalon has to sell milk, and state law requires that all dairy farms have a milking house. It was only after milking four of his cows this summer and securing an offer from Cedar Grove Cheese to buy the milk for $1 per pound (10 times the going rate for cow’s milk) that he reluctantly borrowed the necessary $10,000.
Now, with the milking house complete and the calves ready to be separated from their mothers, Ayalon is ready to try milking his 10 cows. The five female calves will be ready to be milked in about two years, and Ayalon has determined to keep the milking herd to 30 cows.
At this point, whether he will succeed even with the 10 who now give milk is a mystery. He has about two days after the separation, which is set to take place within the coming weeks, before the milk dries up. If that happens, he will try again in summer. If the result is the same, it will be time to begin the process of moving on.
It’s hard not to compare some aspects of Ayalon’s current situation to that of popular biblical figures. Abraham left home for a strange land. Noah knew nothing about the animals he had to care for but their lives — and his — depended on his smarts. There’s even a dash (but only a dash, luckily) of Job, who endured hardship and uncertainty.
But listening to Ayalon’s voice as he softly calls his animals (“Heeere Bufffaloooo, Heeeere, Buffalllooo”), watching them come toward him to be stroked, hugged and acknowledged by name “Hey, No Name, Hey, 24, Hey, Shelly, Hey, Armando”), it’s not cheese or milk, steaks in the freezer or bank loans that come to mind.
“But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken.”
Amy Waldman is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.