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Saturday, March 29, 2008
Welcome to Milkland
By AMY CHAVEZ
There is something Bovinian in the air. I am in Hokkaido and I can see farms all around, but no animals. As a matter of fact, you'd think all these farmers were farming snow, because that is all you can see — deep, deep snow behind the fences.
Hokkaido has been known as Milkland Hokkaido for over 25 years. It is the dairy land of Japan, where Japan produces most of its milk and cheese products. This is because Hokkaido is big, and so are cows. Cows need space to graze and live.
As a result, most cows that migrated to Japan settled in Hokkaido and now their pastoral homes are used as backdrops for milk cartons and commercials. Driving around Hokkaido, I came upon many cheese factories and ice cream shops.
There was even a "milk factory" at Takahashi Farm where they had on sale, ice cream, yogurt, pudding, and even "moo-moo cookies." I first learned about Takahashi Farm in the Japanese magazine "Niseko Walker." The article featured a two-page spread with cover girls — a Brown Swiss and a Holstein — in a closeup, in-your-nostrils type photo. The pair looked lovely.
So I headed to Takahashi Farm and stopped at the milk factory for an ice cream. The shop had a brochure, again featuring the darlings of the dairy — a Brown Swiss and a black-and-white Holstein together. But this time it was an artist's rendition of them doing a kickline. I pocketed this bit of "cowmercial-ism" and made my way to the counter to talk to the cashier.
There was a mysterious absence of bovine staff — the geniuses behind the products. When I inquired, the woman pointed out the window to a farm in the distance and told me I was welcome to go look.
As soon as I got out of the car, all the cows in the front paddock came over to greet me. Of course, that may have had something to do with the cowprint shirt I was wearing, but I was honored that they took such interest in me.
I introduced myself and told them I was interested in seeing the cows' working conditions. Did they have to work overtime? Were they properly compensated? Things like that.
The owner, Mayumi Takahashi, came out of a nearby house to see what all the mooing was about. I introduced myself and she kindly offered to give me a tour and answer my questions.
Do the cows moo with a Hokkaido accent? I asked her.
"I don't know, but the Brown Swiss definitely have a different moo," she said. A deeper, raspier moo.
As we entered the barn, we were greeted with small moos, big moos, deep moos, even little baby moos from the calves. The cows were all lined up munching hay and oats.
"They are taking a lunch break now," Mrs. Takahashi explained. "They have been outside for a couple hours and now they are eating and resting before they go back outside again." It seemed like a reasonable workload to me.
The cows are out to pasture only two to three hours in the winter. With all the snow, I can see why they don't let the cows out much. They'd blend right in with the snow, and all you would see would be small funny-shaped black spots moving around.
Other than room and board, what other benefits do the cows enjoy here at Takahashi Farm? Do you play music for them? Do you give them massages?
"Sometimes I massage them by brushing them. I don't think cows like music," she said.
Do cows snore when they sleep?
"I have never heard them snore," she said while heading over to a Swiss Brown lying down. She is the model for the yogurt cartons.
The Brown Swiss was a real beauty. I couldn't help think that if they could just replace those big yellow ear tags with a nice set of dangly earrings, she'd look like a million bucks. Whoops — I mean a million dollars.
In the old days, the cows were registered by pattern and each cow's pattern was drawn on a sheet of paper. Now they use ear tags with numbers.
Mrs. Takahashi then launched into an explanation about cattle sex and reproduction. But that's the udder side of the story, which I'll let you know next week.