Disaster-hit farm in Katsurao resumes raw milk shipments after hiatus of 7 years, 10 months

12 January 2019

The Sakuma dairy farm in the Ochiai district of Katsurao village, Fukushima Prefecture, resumed raw milk shipments on Jan. 11 after a hiatus of seven years and 10 months following the Great East Japan Earthquake. It is the third farm to resume operations in former evacuation zones set up after the nuclear accident triggered by the 2011 quake at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi plant and the first to do so in the village. The Sakuma farm has been revived with the help of a villager who also used to run a dairy farm in Katsurao.

The reopened farm is set to increase shipment volumes in the future, seeking to develop new products based on the "sixth industry" concept combining the primary, secondary and tertiary industries and to create jobs. "We want it to grow to an industry that supports our village by delivering safe and secure fresh milk to consumers," said Tetsuji Sakuma, 42-year-old senior managing director of the farm. "We would like to encourage dairy farmers in the disaster-affected areas."

The volume of raw milk shipped on the day was about 735 liters taken from 13 or 14 cows. It was trucked to Tohoku Kyodo Milk Industry Co. in Motomiya city in the morning. "We have managed to reach the starting line," Sakuma said. "I feel these seven years and 10 months have been longer than the 15-year period during which I began dairy farming at age 20 and was hit by the disaster."

Before the disaster, the farm was home to some 130 head of dairy cattle, shipping a daily total of around 2,700 kiloliters of raw milk, making it one of the most productive operations in Fukushima. But the Sakuma family evacuated outside the prefecture following the nuclear disaster, taking their small child but having no choice but to euthanize the cows that they considered to be like family. Sakuma still has a vivid memory of some cows that starved to death. He has since had to deal with the guilt, questioning the decision about whether it was "right to have fled." At one stage he looked into the possibility of resuming dairy farming outside Fukushima.

The farm was incorporated in 2012. In December 2016, the national government lifted restrictions on raw milk shipments from the village except from a difficult-to-return zone. The move prompted Sakuma to restart dairy farming in Katsurao because "dairy farming in the village will not subsist unless I stand on my own feet now."

Sakuma returned to the village with his family from their temporary evacuation housing in April last year, resuming dairy farming in September. He took out a 100 million yen loan from Norinchukin Bank to purchase dairy cattle and finance farm operations. He maximized efforts to prevent self-grown corn used as feed from being contaminated with radioactive fallout, and strengthened cowshed enclosures to stop nearby wind-swept soil and fallen leaves from swirling into the pens. Raw milk from an initial herd of eight cows, bought from Hokkaido, was subjected to screening by prefectural inspectors on a total of 16 occasions from October to December, showing no radioactive contamination at all.

Helping Sakuma restart his farming activities was Keiichi Furutate, 41, the fellow villager who used to operate a milk ranch before the disaster. Having abandoned his cattle-raising business after evacuating, Furutate was working as an office staffer and deliveryman in the southern Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama. Invited by Sakuma, he took up a position on the farm in April last year. Furutate is a farm executive now. The farm has a staff of four other workers, all young in their 30s and 40s. It is Sakuma and Furutate alone who have experienced dairy farming. "I am happy to be back in a life that I used to live before the quake," Furutate said, filled with a sense of fulfillment.

The pasture that Sakuma used before the disaster lies in the no-go zone, and he feeds his cattle with imported grass for the moment. To increase the number of cattle from 40 to the pre-disaster level of 130 requires a lot of manpower to manage the birth and raising of calves. Sakuma is experiencing a worker shortage, but he and Furutate hope that they will be able to increase employment once their dairy farm gets on track.

(Translated by Kyodo News)