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From soldier to sea captain to cattle raiser

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-07-09

If you happen to be driving through the farm fields of Yomitan, you might notice an American guy feeding his Japanese Wagyu cattle - a special breed of cow that is used for Japan's famous Kobe beef. Like his Okinawan counterparts, this American cattle raiser takes his work seriously, and he knows as much about Wagyu cattle raising as anyone in the business.

His name is Larry Kramer, and his life story is like something from a Jimmy Buffet novel. He was born in Texas and moved to New Mexico, where he grew up spending his summers back in the Lone Star State helping his uncles tend to their ranches. He learned about farming and also received his first experience with raising cattle during those long and hot Texas summers. Kramer joined the United States Army, and found himself in Okinawa in 1972, after having served his country in Vietnam. He then left the island for Fort Bragg in 1974, but eventually returned to Okinawa with his Okinawan wife. Although Kramer had developed a very warm feeling for Okinawa and its people, he had no idea that someday he would be raising cattle in the village of Yomitan.

Upon retiring from the military in 1990, Kramer was at first more associated with catching big game fish than he was with feeding cattle. As the captain of the "Kajiki Maru," Kramer lead fishing tours out of Kadena Marina for five years. His down to earth personality and his friendly smile made him the perfect captain and host for hundreds of fish seeking Americans. His old but sea-worthy, wooden vessel became a popular site leaving the docks, until he finally hung up his pole in 1997.

Kramer sold the Kajiki Maru and began to help his father-in-law grow sweet potatoes, trying to keep himself busy. He soon gained a reputation as a hard worker, pulling in huge harvests as a result of long hours in the fields. It was at this time that another local farmer suggested to Kramer that he should try his hand at cattle raising. "He told me that he thought I would be good at it, so I thought about it and I figured I might as well give it a try," explained Kramer about how he came to be interested in the prospect of raising cattle.

The sea captain turned farmer took the opportunity seriously. He conducted research on his own for six months before purchasing his first head of cattle in December of last year. He explained that studying the blood-lines of each cow is the key to getting good and healthy animals. "To do it good, there's a lot of studying to do," he said as he showed me records of his three cows. The documents held the history of each animal, going back several generations.

Kramer now owns three adult cows and one six-month old calf. The adult cows are used strictly for breeding, which means their health must be constantly monitored, while the calf will be eventually auctioned off once it reaches between 450 and 600 pounds. The adult cows are artificially inseminated to produce their offspring, which is a separate science in itself.

The typical day for Kramer begins at 5:30 am with a hot cup of coffee. He checks his e-mail and then gets out to feed his cattle at about 6:30 am. The cows must be fed again at 12 noon and later on at 5:30, when he also cleans their stalls. It's a regiment that Kramer sticks to in order to ensure his cattle are well fed and taken care of.

"The hardest part is that it's a daily job. You have to feed those cows everyday," explained Kramer. "You have to get up every morning and make sure they're healthy, which means you schedule your life around the cattle."

What distinguishes Kobe beef from other beef is that there is a gene in the Wagyu cattle that gives the meat its marble color. The fat is also said to have a lower melting temperature, making the meat faster cooking, which helps to keep it tender and flavorful.

The price of Kobe Beef and its association with high quality means Kramer must stay on top of his business in order to compete with the other cattle raisers here on Okinawa. Besides caring for his cows, he is also constantly doing research for future purchases. This includes visits to some of the monthly auctions held in Nakijin and Kochinda and using his computer to review all of the latest information about new cattle for sale - he would eventually like to increase the number of cattle he owns to between 15 and 20 heads. Kramer also relies on his past experiences in Texas when looking for a cow. "If you've been around cows, you know what looks good and healthy," he said.

He added that the other local cattle raisers have been very helpful and that he enjoys his camaraderie among them. "Everybody has treated me as if I belong here," he explained.

At the area where his cows are kept in Yomitan, Kramer was busy feeding them their afternoon meal on a cloudy day. "They know that I am the one who feeds them. The older one actually moves out of the way for me when I come in to clean the stall," responded Kramer when I asked him about the cows' intelligence.

Nine hundred pounds of bulk can be intimidating, but Kramer informed me that the Wagyu cattle are much gentler than other breeds. "With other cattle you have to be careful, but these are not so aggressive towards humans," he said. "Anybody is apprehensive around animals at first, but once you figure out their disposition it's pretty easy - every cow has their own way of doing things."

Later on as we were riding in his little pick up truck through the dirt roads of Yomitan's farm fields, Kramer looked around with a smile and said, "My life now is pretty simple and laid back. It's a pretty good retirement I have right now." I believe that Jimmy Buffet would probably think so too.

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