In this month’s blog, we travel to idyllic Luang Prabang in Laos where Simon Cuerden was lucky enough to discover one of the country’s very first dairies and an excellent example of sustainability in action.
Whatever image comes to mind when you think of Laos, a beautiful sparsely populated nation in Southeast Asia, delicious cheese probably isn’t one of them. Yet in 2014 when a mid-life crisis propelled Rachel O’Shea, Susie Martin and Steven McWhirter to leave their expat postings in Singapore and settle in beautiful Luang Prabang, cheese was definitely on their minds.
Although buffalo milk is very nutritional—it’s actually higher in calcium and protein than regular cows’ milk and lower in cholesterol too—these cheese-loving aficionados soon realized that in this land chock full of buffalo, a dairy industry was non-existent.
Lao people typically don’t usually drink milk because it’s not a part of their culture. Besides, up to ninety percent of Southeast Asians are lactose intolerant. However, the beauty of buffalo milk products is that they are usually much easier to digest than their cow-milk counterparts. As O’Shea explains, “The great thing about buffalo milk is that the makeup of it is so different from cows’ milk that the majority of people who are lactose intolerant can enjoy buffalo products without any problems. We’ve actually used a few of our friends as guinea pigs.”
Milking buffaloes is not common practice in Laos. Yields are typically low. Compared to a regular cow that can generate 35–50 litres of milk per day, Swamp buffalo, the native Lao breed, only produce 1.5–4 litres while Murrah buffalo average 5–10 litres.
Sustainability in action
Buffalo have always played a significant role in the social and economic fabric of rural Laos. For Lao farmers, having a buffalo is like having a bank account. On average one animal can be worth an average annual salary—that’s as much as 12 million kip (almost US$1,500). However, local farmers often have little control over their beasts and few can afford the expense of feed and vaccines. Inbreeding has become a major issue too and has severely impacted milk yields causing an already dwindling population to shrink rapidly.
Enter the Laos Buffalo Dairy. The farm rents female Swamp buffalo from local farmers (the males are usually sold for meat) by paying them a regular monthly stipend as well as inoculating them too at no cost to the farmer. It’s a win-win for everyone: the dairy vaccinates, feeds, milks and cares for the animals, the farmers receive a much-needed extra income and the dairy’s owners satisfy their insatiable love for cheese!
Convincing entire villages to trust the dairy with their precious creatures was initially a bit of a struggle, so the dairy first worked with Somlith, the chief of nearby Thinkeo village, who O’Shea describes as being an “outside-the-box thinker.” Somilith agreed to a trial run whereby he would rent them three buffalo for six weeks. After a few false starts, the herd eventually yielded milk. Somlith’s conviction in the dairy soon paid off; his early involvement gave other villagers the confidence to participate too.
Now the dairy now works with 150 farmers in 17 villages. It’s an excellent example of sustainability with lasting impacts: everyone benefits. Head Chef O’Shea is able to make a mouth-watering selection of cheeses and out of this world ice cream—the dairy currently sells its products to local hotels in nearby Luang Prabang, with ambitions to expand to other countries too. The farmers gain an all-important extra income that allows them to better support their families. All this is possible thanks to the unassuming buffalo. An animal that was once a kind of passive insurance policy for local people is now an income-generating asset.
The Laos Buffalo Dairy is located about half an hour outside of Luang Prabang. They have regular tours of their farm where you can enjoy samples of their delicious cheese and ice cream!