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Future appears bright for indoor veggie farms

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

A 1,260-sq.-meter factory in Kashiwanoha, Chiba Prefecture, is kept extremely clean, shutting out external air because it affects product quality, and workers wear clean-room suits and take a warm shower before entering the facility.

What are they making there — semiconductors or some kind of high-tech machinery?

No, they are actually growing vegetables on layers of shelves neatly set up on 5-meter-high racks.

Japan has seen an increasing number of firms starting vegetable-growing operations in factories in recent years, as they can produce pesticide-free vegetables with a production efficiency up to 100 times that of traditional farms.

Whereas heavy rains or typhoons can ruin agricultural goods grown outdoors, they don’t affect indoor production, allowing stable output throughout the year.

“What we want to do with vegetable factories is that we first want to make an agricultural revolution in Japan,” Tomohiro Shimamura, planning, promotion and sales manager at Mirai Co., told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Seeing the potential in vegetable farm factories, the Tokyo-based venture has been leading the industry since it was founded in 2004 by Shimamura’s brother, Shigeharu.

The company builds its own factories to grow vegetables for the domestic market and provides help to other firms interested in running this kind of business.

“By using new technological systems, we will not only grow vegetables but also new businesses, and then build large-scale factories to establish an industry,” he said.

The factory operators set up racks and grow vegetables on each shelf, beneath fluorescent or LED light. Water and fertilizers containing nitrogen, calcium and other substances are pumped onto the shelves.

The factories are kept clean and sealed off from external air to prevent bugs from entering, so the produce can be grown pesticide-free.

Since the operators grow vegetables on racks, production efficiency can be 100 times higher than outdoor farms, Mirai said.

Vegetables suited to being grown in a factory are generally the leafy types, since they contain lots of water themselves, according to Shimamura. It is possible to produce other vegetables like tomatoes or even rice, but such crops grow more efficiently in a more open environment under sunlight, he said.

Producing quality factory vegetables is tough work. Looking at the system, one might imagine that the plants just grow naturally once the hardware is set up.

However, “vegetables are living things. You just can’t expect them to grow easily by simply setting up the system,” Shimamura said. “It’s not that easy.”

Understanding the biological mechanisms involved in the growth of vegetables is essential, he said.

Based on that knowledge, the operators need to carefully control and balance factors like water, fertilizer, temperature, humidity, lighting and carbon dioxide.

The fertilizer component is a vital point, and Shimamura doesn’t want to talk about which ones his company employs.

Without understanding the biological mechanism of vegetables, it is also difficult to design hardware systems, he said.

And as the factories become larger, it will get harder to maintain the quality of vegetables, Shimamura said.

He added that his brother — Mirai’s president — studied horticulture at Chiba University, so “cultivation (know-how) is our strongest asset.”

Mirai launched the Kashiwanoha factory in June. One of the largest vegetable factories in Japan, it can produce 10,000 heads of lettuce a day.

“In the domestic market, we have moved from the research and development phase to the market cultivation phase, so we are trying to build large-scale factories to lower the production cost,” Shimamura said.

Lettuce production in Japan is worth about ¥80 billion a year, and at this point vegetable factories account for only 1 percent of the total. Mirai hopes to get that up to 30 percent.

The new industry will face hurdles. For instance, because the factories have to use lots of power to maintain their vegetables, the electricity costs are high, especially in Japan.

Even so, vegetable factories aren’t just a trend among venture firms like Mirai. Major electronics makers have entered the market.

In May, Toshiba Corp. announced that it will start growing veggies like lettuce and spinach in a 2,000-sq.-meter factory and start selling them this summer, aiming for ¥300 million in sales in the first business year.

Panasonic Corp. has modified a digital camera plant to produce vegetables, while Fujitsu Ltd. is converting former semiconductor factories.

One reason many firms are getting into the vegetable factory business is that they’re discovering if they build large-scale facilities, it can be profitable, Shimamura said.

Yano Research Institute, a Tokyo-based market research firm, released a report in February that the annual domestic market for vegetable factories will jump to about ¥30 billion by 2020 from ¥3.3 billion in 2013.

The agriculture ministry said the number of vegetable factories jumped to 165 as of last March from 64 in 2011.

The government is also seeing the potential of vegetable factories, as this is a technological field where Japan could lead the world.

“It is possible that this is one of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries businesses that Japan will aggressively promote (to the world),” an official at the farm ministry said.

Shimamura pointed that he thinks there are major opportunities in exporting vegetable factories overseas, especially those countries or areas where harsh weather make growing vegetables hard.

For instance, Mirai built a factory in Mongolia where the temperature can drop to minus 30 degrees.

Plus, there are not many rival foreign firms, Shimamura said.

While the future appears promising from a business standpoint, what about the vegetables themselves? How do they taste?

Shimamura said the pesticide-free leafy veggies grown in Mirai’s factories are of a fine quality, with less bitterness compared with those grown with chemicals.

Because the veggies are grown in a pesticide-free factory and never touch external air until the consumer opens the package, they don’t even have to be washed before they’re eaten, which is convenient, Shimamura said.

Since the taste and production are stable, factory grown vegetables are handy for restaurant operators as well, he said.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, sheds light on new technologies and those under research and development that are expected to hit the market in the near future.