High-tech implements let veterans and newcomers alike manage crops, control costs

Farmers reaping benefits with apps

by Yuko Fukaya

Kyodo

Smartphone apps that help farmers monitor crops and control costs are becoming popular as the rapid graying of the population continues to thin the ranks of skilled veterans in agriculture.

Software developers are interested in developing applications for agriculture because the threat perceived from the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact is expected to push farmers to improve economies of scale and turn their farms into companies.

Last September, Yoichiro Nagai, an employee at Fukuhara Farm, based in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, waved his smartphone over IC tags on rice paddies after adjusting a water valve.

Nagai, 34, was sending information on what he did that day and how much the rice had grown to an online data network dubbed Nosho Navi.

“In rice cropping, the amount of water used differs depending on the climate, soil and the growth situation,” Nagai said.

Nosho Navi makes recommendations on how much water to give each paddy and when to start harvesting the rice, decisions that are often difficult for inexperienced farmers to make.

Kyushu University led the development of the system and smartphone application with the aim of passing down the skills of veteran farmers to younger generations. Fukuhara Farm joined the project when it launched its experimental business in 2010.

Fukuhara Farm is one of the largest farming entities in Shiga Prefecture, boasting about 165 hectares of land, about 35 times that of Tokyo Dome, and a workforce of 15.

“To maintain the quality and yield in large-scale management, we need to develop a solid plan,” said Shoichi Fukuhara, the farm’s 59-year-old president. “Information technologies facilitate operations for beginners and (effectively) raise manpower.”

Kyushu University professor Teruaki Nanseki, who heads the Nosho Navi project, said a sea change is under way.

“The number of farming firms has been rising over the past decade and the farming business, which has been largely dominated by family management, has been experiencing a major change in recent years,” he said.

Nanseki explained that farmers here used to take a “seat-of-the-pants” approach to their work while the size of their businesses were expanding, raising the need for information technology in management, just like ordinary companies.

The Nosho Navi application “helps farmers deal with climate change and other risks and make accurate calculations on costs,” Nanseki said.

Companies are also capitalizing on demand for farming support services, which is expected to climb in years ahead.

Fujitsu Ltd., which is taking part in the Nosho Navi project, launched a support service for farmers in 2012 that covers areas ranging from management to production and sales.

It has already received more than 1,000 inquiries and aims to have 20,000 clients by fiscal 2015, Fujitsu officials said.