NOWATA — The American flag takes a place of prominence on a ranch operated by a family of naturalized citizens with an ancestry as interesting as their new line of work — launching a line of yogurt using a centuries-old recipe rooted in their European past.
Tony Barros, a pilot for an international company, brought his wife, Maria, and three children from Brazil to an acreage outside Nowata in 1994 after looking for a place to raise beef cattle. He had been flying to the Kansas-Oklahoma region, and the couple wanted an American life for their children — who ranged in age from 9 to 17 — and a location with a vibrant agricultural economy.
“We really liked the Oklahoma people, who were very friendly and made us feel welcome,” he said. “This is a good, family-oriented environment to raise our kids. The Christian values weighed strong on our decision, too.”
This love of all things USA comes from a deep-seated place within the couple.
For Maria Barros, her mother’s family fled Czechoslovakia before World War II, but her father, who lived in Serbia-Yugoslavia, was put in a concentration camp for nearly four years after protesting the Nazis as a student. Her paternal grandfather died in a camp. Maria’s father survived but weighed about 70 pounds and was 6 feet 3 inches tall.
“He never wanted to talk about it because it was painful, of course. But one thing he always told us, ‘Americans are special because they came to the camp, and they released us from the Nazis.’ This is the one thing that I will never forget,” Maria Barros said. “This was very special for my whole life.”
While Maria Barros’ family moved to different places during and after the war, her husband’s family had immigrated to Brazil from Italy in the early 20th century as ranchers. That’s where they met and married.
When arriving in Nowata, the schools accommodated the children’s English speaking skills, which were at different levels of mastery. They speak lovingly about their neighbors and about living in a small town.
“The people embraced us,” Maria Barros said. “We felt no prejudice.”
Their daughter, Mariana Forster, describes being scared at first riding the bus to school, but she said people were patient and helpful as they learned the language. She and her sister grew up to obtain bachelor’s degrees.
“We have a lot to be grateful for,” she said.
Upon arrival, the family immediately sought citizenship. It took 10 years, but the family went through the naturalization ceremony together in 2004.
“We have the heritage from Brazil, but since I could remember, I always admired the United States as a free country. We appreciate so much this country that opened up its arms to us,” Tony Barros said.
“We see ourselves as Americans first and Brazilians second. We’re very proud to be Americans and couldn’t wait to get our citizenship. ... We kept praying to be citizens as soon as we could so we could participate as full citizens.”
Tony Barros has continued to fly as the ranch has grown and is currently the chief pilot for a private company.
But his joy is what is happening on the ranch. His eyes light up when talk turns to farming.
Although his son, Jorge, has taken over full operation of the ranch, Tony Barros is still known to call from the cockpit from over oceans to check on things.
“I grew up in a rural environment — on a farm. This is a lifestyle,” he said. “Maria was also raised on a ranch. It’s a more healthy environment and way of life.”
The family’s eating palate leaned toward their ancestral European upbringing, particularly in dairy. Yogurt was a daily staple and often a sweet treat in place of sugary candies or cakes.
No yogurt on the American market could satisfy their culinary taste. The choices were either too tart, too runny, too thick, poor quality or just over-processed.
Maria Barros had her own personal recipe, handed down from her Czech great-great-great grandmother. It was a hit with family and friends but made for home use only.
“We grew up eating yogurt because of our European background, but we couldn’t find anything here we liked,” Tony Barros said.
Because Tony Barros traveled so often to Europe, particularly in France, he would sample different yogurt styles and take notes on the manufacturing process.
At the Natural History Museum in London, he noticed how ancient civilizations kept their dairy in ceramic containers. He later discovered the science behind it leads to yogurt cultures lasting longer.
After much research and adjustments to the family-recipe for mass production, the Barros family landed on a perfect combination to offer their popular yogurt to the public. They added a dairy to the ranch to make the product on site.
Amélia Natural French Style Yogurt was launched in January and has been quickly hitting local markets.
“When people think of yogurt in America, they think of breakfast,” Tony Barros said. “But our yogurt could be used as a dessert. It is a creamy, rich flavor that is natural.”
The name comes from the mother of Tony Barros and is also the name of the couple’s first granddaughter.
Like with everything on the ranch, the making of the yogurt is a family business with everyone being able to describe and work each part of the process.
The milk is purchased locally, and Maria Barros makes the fruit jam that is added into the pasteurized batches. It takes about 13 hours for one container of yogurt to be made, from milk to refrigerator.
Once the creamery starts the process, it can produce about 200 containers in an hour.
Each batch is sampled, and Tony Barros approaches that job like opening a fine wine — very much like a European.
“People need to take time to enjoy food,” he said. “Take your time to taste it, smell it and enjoy it. It makes a large difference.”
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376