KATSURAO, Fukushima -- A 42-year-old man resumed operations at his dairy farm on Sept. 13 with the arrival of eight cows at his barn, after an evacuation order for the 2011 nuclear crisis was lifted in most parts of the village here.
Tetsuji Sakuma, who is aiming to ship milk for public sale from the beginning of next year, restarted his business for the first time in 7 1/2 years after the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster. He did not give up hope of resuming his work even after being forced to evacuate and losing all his cattle as a result. "I hope to restore my finances and to lead this area (to recovery)," said the farmer, taking one step toward the reconstruction of his hometown.
Sakuma unloaded the cows from a truck into his barn with the help of his 68-year-old father Shinji. Sakuma laughed bitterly as he suddenly felt old, realizing he had "lost strength after not doing such work for 7 1/2 years," but flashed a smile as he watched the cattle graze.
Sakuma took over running the ranch when he was just 20 years old. He successfully increased the number of cows and barns, and was raising a total of 129 dairy cattle before the nuclear crisis struck. He grew corn and grass to feed the cows, which he raised from when they were calves, and brought them up in a stress-less environment to produce large quantities of high quality milk. The cows were like members of the family and he used to ship the largest amount of raw milk among farmers in Fukushima Prefecture.
After the deadly quake struck on March 11, 2011, a tanker did not come to collect his milk the next day, forcing him to discard it. Dairy cattle can die if they are not milked and Sakuma thought that "cows sacrifice themselves to produce milk, and throwing it away is like wasting their lives."
Everyone in the village was advised to evacuate on the night of March 14, 2011. Sakuma let his wife and child evacuate to Gunma Prefecture while he took shelter in the city of Fukushima with his parents. Ten of his cows were found dead when he returned on May 18.
Some 25 of his young cows were sent to a ranch in Hokkaido in June that year and the rest were shipped off to be culled for their meat following inspections. "People can evacuate, but cows have nowhere to escape," the distressed farmer thought as he apologized to the cows.
Sakuma moved into a temporary housing complex in the town of Miharu in Fukushima Prefecture with his wife and child. He helped his friend's civil engineering work while serving as a village assembly member, and waited for a chance to start farming again. Restrictions on shipments of milk were lifted in December 2016, half a year after the easing of the nuclear evacuation order. Sakuma rushed to prepare for the reopening of his dairy farm, such as repairing milking machines.
The excited farmer bought eight dairy cattle at an auction in Hokkaido on Sept. 11, exactly 7 1/2 years after the Fukushima disaster. Sakuma will check the level of radiation in the cows' milk once a week, to accomplish his goal to ship milk for public sale from the beginning of next year. His future dream is to have 300 cows graze on his farm.
His wife gave birth to three more children while they lived as evacuees and this spring, the family moved into a new home he built in the place where their old home used to stand in the town of Katsurao. The father of four feels proud every time his eldest son Ryoji, 13, says he wants to "become a dairy farmer."
Sakuma never once thought of shutting down his dairy farm. "I don't want to be perceived as someone who quit in exchange for compensation. If I stop farming, I would feel like I have lost to these circumstances," he stated. Sakuma has to repay a 100 million yen loan he took out to resume operations at his dairy farm and to work to eliminate damage caused by harmful rumors, as well as face many other challenges. "This is the point of no return," said Sakuma, as he rolled up his sleeves to start his difficult journey.
(Japanese original by Rikka Teramachi, Fukushima Bureau)