Ramini Mozzarella water buffalo find new home in Sonoma’s Green Acres Ranch

Tomales’ Ramini Mozzarella is leasing historic land in Sonoma for its water buffalo.|

They look like ominous beasts, weighing up to 600 pounds, but they’re as loving as dogs if treated with affection and care. And nostalgic feelings are welling up among any longtime Sonoma residents who catch a glimpse of them at Green Acres Ranch in Sonoma these days.

That’s because 30 purebred Italian water buffalo are now grazing on 80 acres of the 500-acre property that for decades was home to cattle. Sonomans Dr. Dario Marioni and James Millerick, a rodeo operator and B-52 aircraft commander, co-owned the cattle, which were part of the Go Broke Cattle Co. When Millerick passed away in 1996, the 80 acres were leased to Tony Knect, who used the land to graze his beloved Clydesdale horses until 2018.

“To have dairy cows return to the property after 100 years takes a warm place in my heart,” said Michael Millerick, son of Rose Scarafoni Millerick, who married James Millerick in 1944.

Today, Michael Millerick now co-owns the land with his sister, Pamela Millerick Hellen. “I have a strong sense of history and family. When I was in high school, I used to hang out at the old, defunct dairy complex of my grandfather [Joseph Scarafoni] and we hunted fowl all over the property.”

The water buffalo recently were transported to Green Acres Ranch from a dairy that is being rented by Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales, which produces buffalo mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Ramini’s lease has a 50-animal limit, so owner and co-founder Audrey Hitchcock needed to find additional pastureland.

The 30 water buffalo at Green Acres Ranch are Hitchcock’s “dry,” or currently nonlactating, herd.

“These animals are my ‘maternity ward,’” Hitchcock said. “All these girls are expected to calve this year and will become my next milking herd.”

Hitchcock connected with Michael Millerick through Sonoma real estate agent Mark Stornetta. Realizing Hitchcock’s plight, Millerick offered Hitchcock a lease to pasture the buffalo on the Sonoma property, bordered by Highway 121 on the south and Highway 116 on the west. The buffalo were moved to the property, which remains available for purchase, this month by using large horse and cow trailers.

“Our lease is for three months, but Michael and his family have indicated that they hope we will be able to stay longer,” Hitchcock said. “I think that it is a great pasture for them. It’s low and flat, so the soil should retain moisture longer. Hopefully, the grass will retain nutrients longer. In the brief time we have been there, I have fallen in love with the spot.”

Last summer, California’s devastating drought was drying up local pastures at Beretta Family Dairy, among others, but subsequent rains helped to alleviate the severity of the problem.

Hitchcock says that upon entering the pasture, she feels transported into a thriving and very special natural habitat.

“You almost forget it’s in the middle of Sonoma,” she said. “There are great blue herons, egrets, foxes and jack rabbits, just to name a few. What I love most about my business is being part of the ecosystem. The egrets, especially, have a symbiotic relationship with the bovines. They love to sit on their backs while hunting.

“The buffalo move as they graze and disturb insects and frogs that the egrets eat. Egrets sit on their backs from a good vantage point, waiting for the insects and frogs, and are moved around as the buffalo moves. At the same time, they can help the buffalo by eating ticks and other insects that might burrow into the buffalo. It’s a win-win relationship.”

The water buffalo are native to Southeast Asia and in the United States, and their milk quality is twice that of cows.

“It’s double the butter fat and double the protein,” Hitchcock said. “So, water buffalo milk produces a much richer cheese.”

Ever since co-founding Ramini Mozzarella with her late husband, Craig Ramini, in 2009, she has developed a deep fondness for her water buffalo.

“If they experience human kindness, they reciprocate in kind,” she said. “They are incredibly sweet and love human interaction. However, if they do not know you or are spooked, they can be dangerous, so strangers should not enter their pasture without being accompanied by me.”

The length of the herd’s stay at Green Acres Ranch is dependent upon her finding a new home for the water buffalo in Tomales. Her lease on the land there ends in October and she doesn’t have an option to renew it, so she needs to find a place by then for at least 50 of her water buffalo.

“Green Acres Ranch is not big enough for all 80 animals, so I am in a near-desperate situation again where I am searching for a place for the 50 from Tomales,” she said. “I would love to buy a dairy and fix it up and make it our permanent home. If I cannot find one by October, then I will have to find just grazing land where I can keep them until I find a new dairy. If I cannot even find even grazing for them, I will have to sell them and give up.”

Ramini Mozzarella was required to erect fencing at the pasture in Sonoma to keep the buffalo and community and vineyards safe. It was a huge undertaking that Hitchcock could not afford, so she started a GoFundMe campaign. Contributions can be made at gofundme.com/f/a-home-for-29-buffalo.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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