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, who is 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.
Most of the meat is ground and sold for hamburger.
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, milk and as a beast of burden. Approximately 60 percent of the milk consumed in India comes from water buffalo, said Popenoe.
Despite the estimated population of 158 million of the creatures, Popenoe found it difficult starting that first herd.
"I couldn't import animals, so I started by using surplus populations from zoos," he said.
In his years of study and research, Popenoe came across records from a South Carolina plantation which show that was the site of the first recorded water buffalo herd in the U.S.
"Before the Civil War, the owner of a South Carolina rice plantation imported some water buffalo from Constantinople," Popenoe said.
"When General Sherman came through, they ate some of them and sent the rest to New York where they grazed in Central Park for a time," he said.
Those animals later became the backbone for zoo populations and after many generations, eventually were reintroduced to an agricultural setting at Popenoe's Williston ranch.
Looking back on his decades of water buffalo work, he is a little surprised the segment hasn't grown bigger.
"I did a lot of work comparing them with cattle and it seemed like a natural fit for wetlands in Florida. I think they could be used with great success in the restoration of the Everglades," Popenoe said. "It really hasn't taken off in the Southeast like I thought it would. I thought with all the dairies closing because of stricter regulations that would have been an avenue for the water buffalo. That's why they have been growing in Canada."