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A stone’s throw west of Ava, nestled among quickly greening hills, sits the Buff’s dairy farm. It’s a lovely three hundred acre spread dotted with barns and outbuildings, a spacious home, and over one hundred registered milk cows. Throughout the farm, the steady tinkling of cowbells gently mixes with the lowing of grazing cattle. In pens near the huge old barn, contented calves relax in dappled sunshine as fenced in weanlings munch hay and learn the intricacies of social interaction with their peers. Two border collies lounge in the front lawn, their eyes deceptively aware of everything going on. Two cats clean themselves beside the front porch. Somewhere out of sight are two feeder pigs. And a horse.
The Buff farm is owned and operated by Heinz and Vroni Buff, a delightful couple who immigrated fifteen years ago with their two young children from Davos, Switzerland. Heinz and Vroni had owned a dairy farm in their native country, but were so stymied by land restrictions and bureaucratic red tape that they decided to move to America. It was a good move for them. Their family and dairy has flourished under their dedication and hard work.
That “hard work” isn’t an overstatement. Three hours every morning and three hours every evening, every day of the year, the Buff’s milk ninety to one hundred cows, cows they have named and recognize on sight. Each day they collect an average of four thousand pounds of milk. That’s about five hundred gallons per day, or more than 175-thousand gallons each year.
“If the power’s out, we just start later” Vroni says in her wonderfully Swiss German-accented English.
“Well,” Heinz adds, his speech equally accented, “Only a little later. Now we have a generator.”
In the springtime, the cows produce even more milk. So much so that the Buff’s 1100-gallon tank cannot hold it all and the milk truck that usually comes every other day has to come daily. In the summer, when it’s brutally hot and humid, the cows produce a little less. However, the Buffs have reduced weather-related production extremes by keeping both Holstein and Brown Swiss cows. “The Holsteins tolerate colder weather better,” Heinz says. “The Brown Swiss tolerate the heat better.”
Between milkings, Heinz and Vroni perform the rest of the arduous duties required to run the dairy. While those jobs change throughout the year, they include artificially inseminating the cows, feeding the herd, bottle feeding and weaning calves, raising and baling hay for winter, fixing fence, improving their pastures, and performing sanitation and maintenance on the milking and farm equipment.
Fortunately, they have help. High school senior and Ava FFA Chapter President, James Elijah, is their milkhand and works two to four evenings a week in the milk barn and with the calves.
“He’s really a good kid,” Vroni says. “He’s good with the cows and good with calves. He’s very patient. He knows the cows and he knows what he’s doing.”
Heinz nods in agreement. “One bad load of milk from one cow and the whole tank is gone. So many things can go wrong if you don’t pay attention. James is a good worker. A careful worker. He always pays attention.”
The Buff’s are also helped by farmhand Dan Guilbeault who works half-days performing chores such as spreading manure, putting out hay, and cutting wood.
“He’s a very steady worker,” Vroni says of Dan.
Again, Heinz nods in agreement. “He loves the cows and the [two feeder] pigs.”
The milk produced by the Buff’s cows is hormone free. This is a boon to health-conscious milk drinkers because rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), which is still used by some dairy farmers to increase their cows’ milk production, is suspected to cause cancer, early onset puberty in children, enlarged breasts in men, and a myriad of reproductive issues for women.
The Buff’s sell a small amount of milk directly from their farm to friends and neighbors who drop by, containers in hand. Most of their milk, however, is picked up by the DMCI milk truck and brought to Mountain Grove. There, the milk is reloaded and then trucked to wherever the contractors are.
Since 1990, there has not been enough dairy production in Missouri to meet the state’s dairy needs, yet much of the milk the Buff’s produce is sent to southern states. “Some of it stays in Missouri, of course,” Heinz says, “but Wisconsin produces too much milk for their state, so it is sent south, to here. So, our milk is sent south, too, to Florida and Louisiana.”
Adding to the complexity of the dairy market, states with low populations, such as New Mexico, have become enormous dairy producers because farmers there have to abide by fewer regulations. “They have plenty of land, even if it’s desert,” Heinz said, “And they don’t have to worry about creating a smell because no one is nearby to object.”
Still, there are fewer regulations in Missouri than there were in Switzerland and the Buff’s have thrived under the increased freedom here, not only in their business ventures, but also in their personal lives.
Today, Heinz and Vroni have four children. The eldest two brought with them from Switzerland, Adrian and Christina, grew up on the farm and attended public school in Ava. However, because of their continued immigrant status and the considerably higher college tuition charged to non-citizens, they are back in Switzerland where each has an apprenticeship. Adrian is a “European Dairy Technician” and is learning the fine art of cheese making. Christina is training in the hotel industry. The two youngest children, fourteen-year old Sandra and twelve-year old Kathrin, were born here and attend Ava Middle School.
The entire family is appreciative of the opportunities that have opened up for them here. Most especially, they are grateful for the warm embrace they have received from the community. “We’ve never had any trouble since we came here, even when we didn’t speak English very well,” Vroni says. “We are accepted.” She pauses and then laughs, “And everyone says they love our accents.”
There are times when Heinz and Vroni miss their native country, the magnificent Swiss Alps and the skiing, but they are very happy here and appreciative of the many gifts America has to offer. Even the most basic.
When Heinz and Vroni were bringing Adrian to the airport after a recent visit from Switzerland, Vroni asked him what he missed most about America when he is away.
“The space,” he replied.
The entire country of Switzerland is one quarter the size of the state of Missouri.