Mr. Kohei Maruyama, a sheep rancher in the Haguro area
When it comes to meat, most people might first think of beef, pork or chicken. The Haguro area, however, boasts of sheep as well. There stands a sheepfold of the Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm in the vicinity of the Haguro Branch Office of Tsuruoka City Hall. When we visited, the sheep, whose faces are black in color, were lively walking around in a small sheepfold.
There was a lovely wooden terrace within the site. We sat there and listened to a story from Mr. Kohei Maruyama.
It was around the mid-1970s when Mr. Maruyama started raising sheep, according to the producer. Up until then, he had raised horses and cattle. He remembers, until he turned to 20 years of age, having drawn horse reins in the paddy fields. Back in the old days, there were more houses in his neighborhood that fed horses, cattle and sheep. At present, however, there are only two farms, including the Maruyama’s Farm, that are raising sheep for meat in the Shonai region, and unless well-informed, even the locals might have fewer opportunities to eat the meat.
A raising cycle of the sheep is about a year-long, and from January to May is the breeding period. Baby sheep enwombed and grown in mother sheep are born in five months when the weather is warm and the breeding environment is optimum. The sheep fed for one or two years are shipped for meat products. In Japan, there are no particular standards that are set forth according to sheep’s ages. In most cases, sheep meat is divided into four kinds in the order of the sheep’s ages: Western milk-fed lamb, lamb, hogget and mutton. At Mr. Maruyama’s Farm, the meats are generally shipped when they are in the hogget stage.
People’s preference for sheep meat varies depending on what stage they are in. The hogget has a flavor of sheep meat and one can enjoy a refreshing fleshy texture. The hogget implies a stage that can satisfy various people’s taste buds. These quality sheep meats raised in the Haguro area were named “Haguro Men-yo” by local butchers and Mr. Masayuki Okuda, the chef of an Italian restaurant, with a steadfast intention to establish a brand.
“We are deeply grateful that Mr. Okuda of Al-ché-cciano introduced to the public how tasty the ‘Haguro Men-yo’ is,” Mr. Maruyama told us.
A person who ate the now-called “Haguro Men-yo”, served at an event, introduced the meat to Mr. Okuda, which was the first connection with the chef. Surprisingly enough, one day, the chef visited Mr. Maruyama in person. The meat raised by Mr. Maruyama is now one of Mr. Okuda’s highly recommended ingredients. At Al-ché-cciano simple but flavorful plates such as “Roasted hogget raised by Mr. Maruyama”, among others, are served and the delicate taste of the hogget can be thoroughly enjoyed. Dishes using goat milk are also served at the restaurant and the goats that were fed with Dadacha beans pods are in fact raised at Mr. Maruyama’s Farm. The sheep are raised with a consideration of high quality flesh and the animals’ health, which leads to the production of an exquisite ingredient.
“The best way to eat the sheep meat is to cut it into thick pieces and grill them after sprinkling them with salt and pepper,” asserts Mr. Maruyama. If you get hold of “Haguro Men-yo,” please try to eat the meat that is simply seasoned.
The sheep are raised with as little stress as possible
Currently, Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm breeds a Suffolk sheep; 80 female for breeding, 120 for shipping. The current sheepfold was built in 1980 on a site that used to be persimmon fields before the land was cleared. First, the farm was run with about ten sheep. Now the sheepfold is situated on a low hill surrounded by trees. The place gets a good cross-breeze and it keeps the area dry, which helps the sheep grow without stress. Sheep are innately timid animals, but here they are raised in a comfortable, stress-free environment even in summer, which makes the production of good meat possible. Also, pregnant sheep are pastured in a highland of Mt. Gassan during the summer. Since the sheep are vulnerable to the heat, they are brought to the spacious pasture to run around freely. With such pasturing, they develop themselves into good sheep that can breed healthy babies.
Making flavorful, quality meat with Dadacha bean pods!
In addition, one of the characteristics in Mr. Maruyama’s sheep ranching, of which he boasts, is that he feeds the sheep with Dadacha beans pods.
Initially, Mr. Maruyama heard some people talking about the problem of handling the food waste of Dadacha bean pods that are generated from processing the crop. Mr. Maruyama thought he could save on his feed expense if he used the waste effectively. To his joy, the sheep eat the feed well, which has eventually contributed to the improved meat quality. These sheer coincidences have admirably resulted in a good outcome.
Mr. Maruyama also feeds the sheep corn, grain and dried grasses. Of all the feeds, the sheep eat voraciously when Dadacha bean pods are given to them, according to Mr. Maruyama. The Dadacha bean pods store well and can be fed to the sheep even during winter.
It is said that Dadacha beans contain various nutrients in abundance, such as an amino acid as one of the umami components, a folic acid that is an essential nutrient for expectant mothers, and a GABA that reduces stress. Thanks to the Dadachabean pods, it is ensured that the sheep can grow healthier.
Mr. Maruyama feeds the sheep every morning and evening, and checks their health, as well as being engaged in rice cultivation. We asked him what is good about sheep ranching. “When I feed sheep, they come to the feed and eat voraciously, which is adorable,” smiled Mr. Maruyama. “And the babies look for and suckle the mothers’ milk, standing 10 to 20 minutes after they are born, which is also adorable,” he continues. Sheep eating the feed and babies trying to stand after they were born are signs of their good health. We felt Mr. Maruyama raises his sheep with a loving look on his face.
Various people engage sheep raising work
Mr. Hiromitsu Maruyama, whose work at the Gassan Kogen Hanazawa Farm is in its fourth year, kindly took us around the farm and showed us a pasture grass harvest.
Mr. Hiromitsu Maruyama who is in his fourth year at the farm is assigned a lot of work. When we visited, he was doing machine maintenance under the direct sun. Then, he hopped on a tractor and started gathering pasture grass at a terrific velocity. When we asked about his work, we fell into talk about sheep shearing. “Up until last year, it took 20 to 30 minutes, but this year, I am able to shear in a half of the time,” said Mr. Maruyama. Sheep shearing requires careful work and a good pace. We are assured that he will know more about the sheep as time goes by, and he will do his work more smoothly. “When I was a kid, I remember having eaten local sheep meats quite often during festivals or something,” said the Haguro-born sheep rancher.
One of Mr. Kohei Maruyama’s sons has been working with him at the farm for two years. At present, the work is done by the three sheep ranchers. The “Haguro Men-yo” is nurtured with a connection of not only a parent-child relationship but also of those who want to be engaged in sheep-ranching.
*The next article, “Karakara-sembei” (a fortune cookie type of sweet with a miniature local folk toy inside) is to be published in mid-November.