AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. (Kyodo) At Nichia Steel Works Ltd., an iron and steel manufacturer in an industrial zone, the last thing visitors might expect to see are rows of lettuce.

But the plants are in a “vegetable factory” and the lettuce grows all year round.

Masafumi Sato, a 36-year-old engineer, was ordered by the firm’s president in August 2007 to develop a new business.

“The iron market has reached its saturation point,” Sato said. “It will not expand.”

After spying an empty lot in the Amagasaki industrial zone, he hit on the idea of growing vegetables there employing temperature control technology used to make iron products.

Inside the 500-sq.-meter vegetable factory, about 50,000 lettuce plants grow quickly under fluorescent lamps. The density of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the air as well as the distribution of fertilizer can be controlled through automation. Crisp, sweet-tasting lettuce of uniformly high quality is ready in six weeks and can be harvested regardless of the season.

“Because they can be eaten without being washed, housewives like them,” Sato said.

Since September, about 1,000 heads of lettuce have been shipped daily to about 30 supermarkets in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. Annual sales are targeted at ¥70 million.

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, there are about 50 vegetable factories across the country, but lettuce production accounts for less than 1 percent of the total.

To secure stable supplies of vegetables, the ministry launched efforts to promote and expand vegetable factories in December, operating jointly with the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade by creating a working group to study how to reduce costs. The number of factories is expected to increase to 150 in the next three years.

Taisei Construction Co. turned an idle plant into a vegetable factory earlier this year.

Shinsaku Takayama, a professor at Tokai University specializing in vegetable factories, said the biggest headache is keeping production costs down.

The cost of fluorescent lamps and other capital investments are directly reflected in vegetable prices.

A head of lettuces grown outdoors in Nagano Prefecture is priced at less than ¥100 in summer, while one grown in a vegetable factory goes for ¥200 throughout the year.

“Our plant is close to major cities and geographically advantageous in terms of transportation costs,” Sato said, adding he is seeking business opportunities in the winter months when no lettuce is produced in Nagano Prefecture, the country’s largest producer of the vegetable.

Masaya Nakajima, an official in Kakawami, the largest lettuce-producing village in Nagano Prefecture, with annual production totaling 60,000 tons, said vegetable factories will become a threat if they are able to lower prices and the restaurant industry moves into vegetable production.

But he expressed confidence, saying, “Consumers still favor naturally grown lettuce.”

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