The dairy grind

F&B Report | Special Food & Travel Issue

Hokkaido is known for producing the best dairy in Japan, but the younger generation’s lack of interest in the industry could mean trouble in dairy paradise

Ask any Japanese and they will tell you that everything from the best milk to potato come from Hokkaido. Its expansive countryside—the most unspoiled in all of Japan—and unique natural conditions make it the ideal place to nourish all sorts of agricultural products. Long hours of sunshine and its lack of an extensive rainy season make for the production of such flavorful fruits and vegetables as pumpkin, potato, corn and melon, while vast farmlands and year-round cool weather ensure a “stress-free” environment for farm animals to graze freely.

Hokkaido currently accounts for a quarter of Japan’s total cultivated area for agriculture, and whereas the rest of the nation is facing an overall low food sufficiency ratio on a per calorie basis of 39 percent, Hokkaido’s is among the highest in the land at 200 percent. Dairy farming, in particular, is a key industry and is responsible for supplying 50 and 90 percent of total Japan’s milk and natural cheese, respectively.

Dairy products are never in short supply. This was revealed in a visit to the Tokachi factory of Yotsuba Milk Products Co. Ltd.(Yotsuba) in Otofuke, where instead of the token traditional green tea most Japanese companies offer its visitors, a glass of fresh milk and a sampler of cheeses—camembert, cheddar and gouda—await. “We always serve milk and cheese to our visitors,” informs Eiichi Shintani, the general manager. “Sometimes, the suppliers just come here because they are thirsty and hungry,” he jests.

Drought in dairy
While there seems to be no shortage of reasons to visit Hokkaido, the same cannot be said for the state of its dairy farming industry. According to Shintani, the number of dairy farms have been steadily dwindling in recent years as businesses face their biggest issue yet: a lack of successors. As of today, there are currently only 6,000 dairy farms in Hokkaido—roughly 13 percent down from the year prior. And in the northern and eastern parts of the island where 86.4 percent of milk yields (3,223,000 tons) are produced, an average town with a population size of 4,000 would only see one or two new farmers joining the business every year.

“Two hundred dairy farms quit from business every year because they have no successors. We don’t have too many newcomers. If the speed of reduction continues, in 10 years the industry will only have 4,000 dairy farms. This has been a really big issue for us, and we have to do something about it,” says Shintani. He quickly points out, however, that regardless of the reduction in dairy farms, the number of dairy cattle in Hokkaido—792,400 as of 2014—will not be affected.

For Yotsuba’s part—the company currently holds a 17.4 percent share of the total milk processing facilities in Hokkaido—Shintani shares that one of the sustainable strategies they are implementing is encouraging dairy farms to raise more cattle to sustain the level of milk yields. “We also ask them to convert themselves into a cooperative so they can expand their business and keep more cattle. But it’s not a lasting solution—as a private company, we cannot do all the action. There needs to be intervention from the local government, too,” he says.

Even as this threat to the industry looms, it’s business as usual across Yotsuba’s home base in Otofuke, Tokachi—a strategic location, Shintani reveals, as the maximum distance that fresh milk can travel before spoiling is 50 kilometers. Most of Hokkaido’s dairy farms, the general manager informs, fall within this range.

The Tokachi factory has nine massive facilities, each specifically dedicated to processing such dairy products as whole and low fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and softmix which they use for soft-serve ice cream. As Shintani tours the group around the compound, a group of kids pass excitedly by, their lively guide informing them of the lengthy process it takes to create the butter they see everyday on their breakfast tables. Pointing to the kids, Shintani tells us, “We want to make people aware that the products they consume are using local milk instead of something exported. We want young people to know that engaging in local farming is a good business. That’s what we do. We also have to keep on existing—us, and the other companies that process milk. This way, the dairy farms will not have any concerns about raising the cattle. Our existence will make them more secure to produce more milk.”

 

Photo by the Hokkaido Government – Office of International Business