Water Buffalo in the Crystal Valley: Finding Ground

In June 2018, Magazine by Genevieve Joëlle VillamizarLeave a Comment

Affection is powerful in a slower world. “How do we scale back down?” Jose asks.

It’s 2014. Four valiant Carbondalians are commuting together to one of nine monthly workshops through Roaring Fork Leadership. As happens with time in close quarters, they fill the space between highway stripes with their stories.

Jose Miranda dreamt of bringing water buffalo to Colorado.

Jose shares the story of building his dream at Rock Bottom Ranch’s “Fire In The Belly” storytelling event this Wednesday, 6:PM in the barn. Sponsored and presented by CORE, ACES and City of Aspen. Food and libations~

At the mention of water buffalo, he captured our semi-arid mountain region attention— not unusual for Jose. Big, fat charisma doesn’t begin to describe it, but it’s a reasonable starting point. Jose steals a room. Dark spiral curls with umber undertones wave over a thick undercoat. Luminous olive eyes flash from black lashes. Life and mischief crease cafe-ole skin stretched across strong bones. A single black hole perforates his grin, speaking to both adversity and devil may care:

Jose will do things his way.

In a deep voice meant for El Radio Mundo, his mouth folds around the soft, rolling consonants and stronger vowels of his Venzeluean tongue. He speaks of the llanos, of civil unrest, and Familia— not only that of Homo sapien, but Bubalis bubalis, water buffalo. His herd: the family he cannot walk away from.

In 2018, Jose is living his dream. 

herd of thirteen water buffalo graze pasture along Thompson Creek at Sunfire Ranch. Hopes are high for this third attempt. His last effort nearly cost him his life.*  

“By the time I was a kid running around, my uncles had brought the first import of the boofalo to Venezuela for the purpose of dairy production,” Jose explains in the lilting accent of the ‘llaneros’, cowboys of the Venezuelan savannah. “The boofalo came from Bulgaria, Italy, Trinidad. My uncles started improving the breed, started learning about it, how they would adapt to the environment. They built the first dairy. And that’s when my memories start, just running around barefoot in the savannahs, the llano, chasing boofalos, drinking the milk,” he says. “My memories are just running wild in the jungle. Picking the eggs on the farm from the chickens, getting bit by the pet money that didn’t like boys, running around the lagoon trying to catch alligators. Trying to find baby birds to raise. Seeing all kinds of wildlife— daily. This is the kind of place ornithologists visit to see more species than they’ve seen in their life. The llano.”

Los llanos, Venezueala. Photo, Jean Luc Baptiste

In just the recollection, longing fills Jose.

“I grew up in Nature in Venezuela, in all kinds of very rich, different bio-regions— the Caribbean, the Andes, the Amazon, the flat  lands—it’s such a diverse place,” he sighs. “And I’ve been in contact with Nature in all these places, and wildlife, and working on farms with domestic animals. None of them called me, connected with me, like the water boofalo.”

However, amid national instability, his father sold the family ranch. Jose determined to begin anew, on a smaller piece of land, with a smaller herd. On his own, with wife and children, danger struck swiftly. In a climactic moment, Jose had no choice. He sent his family back to Carbondale, where he had managed the Tybar ranch. In less than a month, he made arrangements for himself as well, forsaking his herd, his land and his dream.

In relinquishing a homeland in exchange for safety, Jose felt he lost the dignity of nationality, entering the identity-warping journey of immigration.

“The situation in Venzuela, of being here in Carbondale, was one of surrender, of reality,” he says. “This is where I have to be. And be with the boofalo.”

But how?

His fortune changed when the water buffalo was delisted in Colorado.

No longer an exotic species, Jose was free to begin building his herd. He speaks of driving his truck and trailer across the country to purchase young water buffalo.

“It made it real!” he laughs, and then sobers immediately. “Having the water boofalo here has allowed me to ‘ground’ into this place.”

More often than not, when we look back in life and examine where we’re going, where we’ve been, there are pivotal moments, themes and metaphors, that inform our lives— who we are, what drives us.

“For me, it is Nature, and the medium is the farm, and the engine is the boofalo. Because it can really do it all,” he says, listing on his fingers, “It’s a really gentle animal. It can produce milk. It can produce meat.”

Contrary to their horned visage, domesticated water buffalo tend to be calm and affectionate, savoring the bond as much as humans do. In connecting with his baby buffalo, Jose creates a gentle-natured culture that will spread from generation to generation within the herd.

Jose describes a relationship with intelligent beings. There is no forcing, no pushing, no unnatural coercion. You can see this at play in this video.

“In the beginning, it’s building that bond,” he says softly. “They want to be with you. I start these animals as babies. I bottle feed them.”

In so doing, Jose begins the herd on his terms— in wholesome cooperation.

“I get them young because nobody is doing this kind of handling. If I get an older buffalo, it’s a lot harder to do in a gentle way that becomes natural. First, the babies want the bottle. They don’t want to be pet very much, they just want the milk, the nutrition. Then, as I bottle feed them, I begin to pet them; then they like to be pet. It’s a great experience for them. Then just being with them, they start liking you. They start ‘petting’ you, in a sense, they start licking you. And you receive that, as well. It’s a give and take from each other.”

When Jose sent his family to Carbondale, he returned to manage Tybar again. Though he works with Angus all day,  Jose begins and ends each one with his own herd. They are his family.

“There is one in particular who is simply crazy for me, one of the first ones that I raised,” he chuckles.

One morning this spring, Jose snuck up in his truck. He didn’t want them crossing Thompson Creek at high water.

“This one boofalo, she needed to greet me, crossing anyway. The other ones, they didn’t want to cross. This one?” He shakes his head. “She still made it through. Just to say ‘hello.’”

And what does ‘hello’ look like?

“Good question,” he laughs. “Saying ‘hello,’ she comes, and puts her head right here, in front of you. And if you don’t know, you think she wants to ram you— I had to get out of the truck, otherwise she would have come in through the window! It was quite a scene, with the other boofalo yelling, like, ‘Where’re you going?! I wanna go to too!’ Asking me to swim over,’” he laughs.

With all of these variables, Jose does not work his herd in an ordinary fashion. Raising the Queen of Milk, Jose aspires to revolutionize the dairy industry, doing it on their terms.

“Boofalos, they come like dogs. I come to the pasture and I call them, and we walk together where we are going. It’s fun. Right now, picking off their ticks, they just lay down. They know what you are doing. They don’t like them, it’s itchy. Handling them this way, I don’t need horses, the cowboys. That means less employees, less expense.”

Jose lights up when we touch on the mobile dairy he’s developed— another reflection of his relationship to Nature.

Jose’s prototype “milking parlor” was inspired by Third World practices of bringing the dairy to the herd. Hydraulics in Jose’s creation lower the trailer to the ground. It has no floor, so the water buffalo enter walking upon the earth. Rather than hose out an entire facility, manure lands on the pasture. Clean up entails washing hoses and connectors. The dairy is powered by solar, courtesy of a CORE grant.

“It’s been stretching my credit. Whatever it takes to make it happen,” he admits.

The mobile ‘parlor’ is total Carbondale hippy-meets-rancher: solar panel on top. Technology inside. Rather than the foreign environment to which cattle are led, the mobile dairy, or as Jose calls it, the ‘milking parlor,’ goes out to the buffalo. The floor drops, allowing the buffalo to stand upon the earth.

“I still have to put more into it to [scale it]. I know that I can make it happen. I have experience with this. I know how great the product is, the animal is, and the potential it has— this is a very pioneer moment,” he says quietly

In the beginning, Jose had come to the United States to learn English and bring his knowledge from vet school back to Venezuela. At this point, for safety and family reasons, he lives in the US, bringing his knowledge from Venezuela, to “do things right. We’re moving too fast. We need to slow down. We need to chill out. How do we scale back down? I want to offer a new model of producing milk. A new kind of milk, here,” he emphasizes. “I have milk from cow, sheep, goat and the boofalo. Milked by myself. With those animals raised by myself. The milk of the boofalo not only has the best smell and flavor, but is the healthiest. The one that feels the best, the one that makes the best cheese…it is just perfect.”

Jose can be reached at 970.615.0098 to arrange for a farm tour. To learn more, give a listen to Living Permaculture on KDNK, wherein Stephanie Syson & Jerome Ostenkowski interview Jose Miranda. The Sopris Sun featured Jose in this piece, written by Trina Ortega.

*Jose Miranda will speak on daring, danger and dreams Wednesday, June 6, as a part of CORE’s High Five Twilight Series. 6:PM, Rock Bottom Ranch barn. He will be one of a handful of ranconteurs speaking to their own personal “Fire In The Belly,” stories of change and forging ahead, curated by Alya Howe of Alya’s Umbrella through her storytelling project, Writ Large.