Milk production, which was essentially nil during the Edo Period (1603-1868), did not begin in Japan until the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
But by 1975, there was already one dairy cow for every 62 Japanese people, and milk had been a standard part of school lunches for at least two decades.
Dairy farming is tough but rewarding work. It has the benefit of year-round income, but on the other hand, cows require daily early morning and evening feeding and milking. It’s hard to leave the farm, and the number of sons or daughters who are taking over small enterprisedairy farms are few.
No stranger to milk scares (the most famous being in June 2000 when 13,000 people became ill from Snow Brand contaminated milk), Japan lags behind other countries in pasture-based dairies. In the U.S., grass-fed cow milk has become mainstream, while in Japan, grass-fed cow milk is relatively scarce on supermarket shelves. One reason for this phenomenon can be traced back to the local nature of pasture-based dairies, many of which are outside of large supermarket distribution channels.
And due to the relatively late blooming of the dairy industry, arable land suitable for grass-feeding cows is hard to find, except in northern areas of the country.
They are few, yet forward-thinking dairies do exist in Japan — small outfits that put their cows to pasture and market their grass-fed cow milk directly to the public.
In the city of Ota in Gunma Prefecture, Tomorakuno Dairy pastures their cows by the Arakawa River and has a delivery network that reaches into Tokyo. Our family has been buying their milk for over 20 years, though I have never visited the farm. But I have had the chance to visit two other Japanese pasture-raised cow farms: one in Hokkaido and another in Iwate Prefecture.
Hiroaki Shinmura is a fourth-generation dairy farmer in the Tokachi area of southeast Hokkaido. Quiet but self-confident, Shinmura convinced his father to convert Tokachi Shinmura Ranch, their family farm, to be wholly pasture-based in 1994. Recognizing that the health of the soil was tantamount to the quality of the grass and thus the overall well-being of the cows and the taste of the milk, Shinmura began the multiyear process of restoring the natural power of his pastures’ soil.
Having been subjected to years of chemical fertilizers, the soil had become weak and thus an environment where earthworms and microorganisms could not survive. But as the microorganisms and insects made a comeback, the ecosystem began to function in a healthy cycle where decomposing cow dung was broken down efficiently — and the grass began to flourish. Shinmura believes that allowing dairy cows to graze fosters the future of the earth. If the grass is delicious, then the cows will eat it, and when the cows eat the grass, there will be no need for imported feed, which in turn leads to energy savings in terms of the fossil fuels required to transport that feed, to say nothing of the cost of buying it. It is not an overstatement to say that a grass-fed dairy farm contributes to global environmental preservation.
But beyond that, the milk just tastes better. The cows thrive in a stress-free environment. They wander where they want and even in the winter are out in the field most of the time. At milking time, a fence is opened and the cows amble contentedly back to the barn. The raw milk is remarkably clear and refreshing on the palate, with a sweet aftertaste.
When Kimio Yoshizuka first stepped on the plot of mountainous land in the far northeastern tip of Iwate Prefecture where his dairy farm, Tanohata Yamachi Rakuno, is located, he felt a deep tug of emotion and a sense of belonging. A transplant from Chiba Prefecture, Yoshizuka felt that Iwate was better suited for creating pasture. His home prefecture was overrun with golf courses, while Hokkaido, the obvious choice and a producer of 52 percent of Japan’s milk, lacks a rainy season, and rain is essential for grass.
Inspired by Kyoji Naohara, a pioneer advocate of grass-fed dairy farming practices in Japan, Yoshizuka and his wife Toshiko converted their mountainous land into pasture over the course of two decades, starting by planting and propagating shiba, Japan’s native wild grass.
Yoshizuka and his wife raised seven children, without electricity for the first 10 years, living at subsistence level as they painstakingly encouraged the shiba to spread across the mountainsides, while also, little by little, increasing their herd of cows. Today, the hills of Tanohata Yamachi Rakuno are carpeted with lush green grass and three of the sons are working alongside their parents.
While in the area I stop by for a chat in the hope that their perseverance and mettle might rub off. Toshiko is engaging, generous and kind, while her husband is passionate about his work and a natural teacher. He hauls out charts and photo albums, explaining their progress as I sip delicious milk. Their herculean project of converting hectares of mountainous land to grassy pastures leave me in awe.
Such pasture-based dairies give hope for the future of Japanese dairy farming. It’s true that the recidivism rate is increasing for small farms. However, slowly but surely, conscientious-minded farmers are increasing, and they are taking responsibility for their stewardship of the land.
As for milk, it just makes all the sense to buy directly from the source, from people who have raised the cows and processed the milk in-house. These people are not only doing crucial work for the planet, but they are also invested in keeping the milk untainted and pure.
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