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Japan’s tech firms rush into agriculture business



A growing number of Japanese information and communications technology firms and manufacturers have entered the agribusiness sector, looking to use their technologies to gain new commercial opportunities at a time when Japan is aiming to make its farming industry more efficient, competitive and profitable.

The introduction of information and communications technology (ICT) is increasingly necessary in the face of the country’s declining agricultural workforce due to the aging of farmers without successors, increases in the area of abandoned cultivated land, and the effects of climate change.

Another catalyst is the government’s policy of turning agriculture into a growth industry if the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact is eventually realized, which would likely boost competition.

“Farmers face challenges in terms of the quality and shipment of products, while municipalities are aiming to revitalize local economies with agriculture at the core,” said Takeshi Sudo, a senior official at major electronics maker Fujitsu Ltd., which launched a cloud-based agricultural data management service called Akisai in 2012.

They hope “ICT will play bigger roles in agricultural fields such as production management and the mass-production of local brand products,” Sudo added, during a lecture at the AgriNext international trade fair for next-generation farm technologies and products held at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba Prefecture, in mid-October. As many as 240 companies and organizations had booths at the event.

According to government data, the number of people engaged mainly in farming in Japan stood at 2,606,000 as of 2010, down 747,000, or 22.3 percent, from five years earlier. Those aged 65 or older accounted for 61.6 percent of the total, up from 58.2 percent.

There is concern that if the workforce in the farming sector continues shrinking, it could become difficult to maintain stable food supplies.

The use of ICT in agriculture is seen as making farm work easier and smarter, as well as less dependent on a seat-of-the-pants approach.

NEC Corp., another Japanese electronics giant, provides its own cloud-based service for farmers who grow crops in greenhouses, jointly with Nepon Inc., a manufacturer of greenhouse heating equipment.

Users monitor environmental data in their greenhouses, including temperature, humidity, sunlight and carbon dioxide levels, as well as the operational status of heating equipment, even from distant locations, just by checking information sent to their smartphones and to computers with an Internet connection.

They are also able to operate greenhouse equipment such as ventilation windows, shade curtains and heaters, in order to maintain suitable conditions for crops.

“Wives of farmers who use the system say they are happy because they no longer have to go for routine on-site observations in the evening and can now eat dinner with their children,” said Mayumi Tokuyama, an official with information technology firm NEC Corporation. “The system has changed farmers’ work styles,” she said confidently. Currently, some 500 farmers use the service, the company said.

PS Solutions Corp., an affiliate of mobile communications carrier SoftBank Corp., has also developed a farm field monitoring system that will enter mass production next year. The system, which uses cloud computing, is designed to make cultivation methods more precise, based on scientific data and analysis.

The company says the monitoring system will first target organizations such as prefectural governments, educational institutions and agriculture cooperatives, so that they can give cultivation advice to farmers based on data collected by multisensor networks placed in crop fields.

PS Solutions hopes the system will help establish models for cultivation management methods that will be adopted by individual farmers. A company official said promotion of the system to individual farmers would be put on hold until they learn how to use the data that will be gathered through the system, pointing out that “the introduction of ICT in agriculture has only just begun.”

Last month, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp., a regional phone unit of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., began testing a farm monitoring system that uses its long-distance wireless communications technology, aiming for commercialization in fiscal 2015.

Under the system, data such as temperature, humidity and light levels collected by solar-powered sensors installed in farms are sent wirelessly to receiver apparatuses located up to several kilometers away. The data are then stored in the cloud network through NTT East’s fiber-optic Internet connection service.

Plant factory systems and other farming facilities that can produce crops stably and efficiently with environment control technologies are attracting attention as another solution to the challenges of beefing up Japanese agriculture and developing overseas markets for Japanese produce.

Industry officials hope to use such systems so production will become more stable and less vulnerable to unusual weather and insects, helping to reduce fluctuations in prices and farmers’ incomes.

Sanshin Metal Working Co., a steel rack maker based in Osaka, sells a plant factory system, featuring multistage steel shelves and light-emitting diode bulbs, to grow leafy vegetables using hydroponics.

Last year, the company built a plant factory that can produce 8,000 heads of lettuces per day in Kawauchi, Fukushima Prefecture, to support the reconstruction of the village, one of the municipalities most affected by the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant in March 2011.

Sanshin Metal, which hopes to sell the system to cold areas in Japan and other regions worldwide with harsh climate, has been in talks on export deals with companies in Canada and the Middle East.

There have also been inquiries from China, though no contract has been concluded so far.