Montreal

The pandemic is creating one challenge after another for this Eastern Townships water buffalo farmer

While Richard Archer's water buffalo spend their days relaxing to the sounds of classic rock tunes, the farmer is dealing with a growing list of headaches because of the pandemic. But he says all he can do is take everything in stride, make adjustments and find a new market for his product.

COVID-19 crushed restaurant market for buffalo mozzarella, made hiring temporary foreign workers complicated

COVID-19 measures and changes to the temporary foreign worker program have added new challenges to Richard Archer's water buffalo farm. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

At his farm in the Eastern Townships, Richard Archer's more-than 100 water buffalo relax by listening to the classic rock tunes of The Who, Boston, and The Beatles. 

Archer moved to Sainte-Sabine from British Columbia four years ago to raise Mediterranean water buffalo and produce buffalo mozzarella. 

Like many other farmers in the province, COVID-19 measures — including changes to the temporary foreign worker program — have hit Archer's farm hard. 

Workers arriving from other countries must be tested for the virus within three days of boarding their plane for Canada. They're tested again on arrival, and a third time near the end of their mandatory 14-day quarantine. 

While many farmers are relieved the federal government is now allowing them to skip hotel quarantines so workers can self-isolate at the farms, Archer doesn't have the facilities for that. 

Richard Archer has more than 100 water buffalo at his farm in the Eastern Townships, where he produces milk to make buffalo mozzarella. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

The three hotel quarantines for which he's footed the bill since last year have cost him about $3,500 each, which includes paying the workers' salaries while they're in isolation. 

"It's always a lot of paperwork, and you have to work six to eight months ahead of when you want them to arrive in Canada," Archer said. "COVID just adds more paperwork and more expenses to that process." 

"But we need it, so they make a hoop, we jump through it, and we get them here," he added. 

The workers he hires, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala, help with milking, feeding, and other barn duties. Luckily, he said, he only needs to hire one at a time, because his wife is also a trained technician and works on the farm. 

While water buffalo in Italy typically listen to classical music, Richard Archer's animals in the Eastern Townships relax by listening to classic rock. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

There are also other challenges that come from being a water buffalo farmer in a province where Archer is one of the few producers.

Archer said the cost of production for water buffalo is much higher than cows to begin with, because the latter produce about four times as much milk. 

"It's good, in a way, that I don't need to buy quota," Archer explained. "But it's bad, in a way, that when something like COVID hits, I have no security, and when they don't need my product, they can just say they don't want it."

Bringing mozzarella di bufala to Quebec 

The father of three already had a lot of experience with water buffalo before his move to Quebec. 

Archer's parents were the first to commercially milk the species in Canada, in B.C., in the early 2000s. 

And while Archer originally planned to grow his parents' herd, he knew there'd be plenty of opportunity in Quebec thanks to the Italian community and demand for buffalo mozzarella in Montreal and Vermont.

Before the pandemic, he worked closely with the province's other water buffalo farm in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu in the Montérégie, which would buy his milk and produce the coveted cheese for restaurants. But when restaurant dining rooms were shut down last March, the demand for mozzarella di bufala plummeted. 

Archer had to find a new market. 

He now sells his milk in Vermont, but the pivot required him to get a truck, and paperwork allowing him to haul his product across the border. 

"It's logistically difficult, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do," he said. 

Farmer Richard Archer has 50 milking water buffalo and dozens of young heifers. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

On the farm, Archer said he enjoys working with the stubborn animals, which he explained have minds of their own. 

"It's like milking the most difficult Holstein cow, but I have a whole herd of them," Archer said, adding the equipment to do the milking is the same as what's used for cows, but he has to go slower and there's less product.

Despite the headache the pandemic has caused the farmer, he said his animals have been staying relaxed thanks to the music he plays in the barn. 

And while their counterparts in Italy listen to classical music, Archer said those in the Eastern Townships do "just fine" with their classic rock.  

"Especially if they know you, they are more of a pet than a cow," he said. "They're also smarter than a cow, which can get us in trouble, too." 

With files from Alison Brunette

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