WILLISTON — When Hugh Popenoe first saw a water buffalo lumbering in a rice paddy in Thailand in 1951, he thought the animals would be perfect to clear weed-choked waterways in Florida and the Southeast.
"Then I got drafted," said Popenoe, a professor at the University of Florida College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
But his time in Thailand, working on irrigation plans on behalf of the U.S. government, left a lasting impression. In 1975 along with the University of Florida, Popenoe established the first modern, commercial herd of water buffalo in the United States.
For the past 35 years, Popenoe has championed the animal as a low-maintenance source of nutrition and an efficient controller of weeds.
"They will eat poor-quality roughage," said Popenoe. "They can extract the nutrients out of vegetation that cows couldn't."
While Popenoe saw the opportunity for meat production, the latest trend has been dairy production.
Water buffalo milk is used to make fresh mozzarella cheese, a gourmet treat that can fetch high prices.
"There is a tremendous demand for the dairy. I have focused on the meat," said Popenoe, who has sold cows to dairies. "There are a few large herds on the West Coast, in the Midwest and in Canada."
Popenoe currently has 200 head of the animals at his farm in Williston. At its height, the herd numbered more than 800, but he has sold some to other producers.
"There is no way to know exactly how many or how large the herds are out there. Cattle ranchers are always reluctant to say how many animals they have and how many acres they ranch," he said.
Popenoe said the water buffalo on his property are largely left to their own devices. They need little or no extra hay and enjoy shade or a pond to keep cool.
"We bring them in once or twice a year," he said. "They are very hardy. We don't use any hormones or antibiotics."
Popenoe has maintained a small network for the meat, mostly selling to friends, but there are some standing commercial orders from restaurants in Miami and Gainesville.
"We don't have a lot of animals, so that kind of limits the number and type of cuts that are available," said John Anderson, a doctorate student at the university who also markets the meat locally.
The meat is less fatty than beef and is naturally low in cholesterol. The animal has been used in South Asia for centuries as a source of food and milk, and as a beast of burden.