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Tomato biz generating cross-industry buzz

JIJI

The tomato-growing business is increasingly attracting attention from various industries in Japan, encouraging cross-sector cooperation in some cases where partners meld their respective strengths.

Major trader Mitsui & Co. in September announced plans to launch grape tomato-growing operations in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture.

Mitsui imported greenhouses, and Asai Nursery Inc., a tomato farm in the Mie capital of Tsu, is growing the grape tomatoes by utilizing waste heat from a cocking oil plant owned by Tsuji Oil Mills Co. of Matsusaka.

“The alliance was formed by bringing together respective specialty areas,” said Susumu Ishimori, deputy head of Mitsui’s Chubu branch in Nagoya.

The tomato business is undertaken by Ureshinoagri Inc., a joint venture established in Matsusaka by the three partners.

The trio plan to produce 500 tons of grape tomatoes in 2015 and sell them to department stores and other retailers via Mitsui’s marketing network.

Mitsui also plans to establish more production bases and export tomatoes to other parts of Asia.

In the past, some nonfarm companies have become involved in growing tomatoes. Major control equipment maker Omron Corp. entered the business in the 1990s in Chitose, Hokkaido.

The company aimed to increase tomato harvests by applying its cutting-edge technologies for controlling greenhouse temperatures and humidity.

However, the company withdrew from the operations in 2002. A public relations official at Omron said the company faced increasing costs for controlling temperatures and failed to develop its own sales networks for tomatoes.

Auto parts maker Denso Corp. is now testing a system to automatically control levels of carbon dioxide, water and mist inside greenhouses. The system was developed jointly with Toyohashi Seed Co. in the Aichi city of Toyohashi.

“We want to help promote agriculture with the system,” a Denso PR official said.

In April 2011, industrial gas maker Air Water Inc. took over the Chitose greenhouses formerly owned by Omron.

Utilizing its technologies to adjust carbon dioxide levels, Air Water grows tomatoes there for supply to tomato-based food maker Kagome Co.

Air Water’s tomato business incurred a loss of hundreds of millions of yen in the first year. But the company believes it can trim the red ink from the operations to tens of millions of yen in fiscal 2013, which ends in March, if hail damage is excluded.

“The tomato business may go well if it is operated in a joint project by multiple companies, instead of by a single company,” an Air Water spokesman said.

Among all vegetables, per-household spending was the largest for tomatoes in Japan in 2012, standing at ¥6,034.