National / Social Issues

Strong community grows out of high-tech, low-effort shared farm in Kyoto

by Ayano Shimizu

Kyodo

A Japanese company has developed an easy way for people in communities to participate in agriculture through the internet, with its demonstration farm becoming a gathering place for local residents in Kyoto.

Toray Construction Co., a real estate and construction company, came up with a “sharing” agriculture model, which allows participants to sign up online to do simple tasks in the greenhouse.

The Osaka-based company joined forces with several institutions to start the six-month demonstration experiment in September after receiving government funding.

“Agriculture is difficult. It’s hard to start farming just because you want to do it,” said Yasutaka Kitagawa, who is in charge of the project at Toray Construction, in a recent interview. “So we thought, what if we come up with a system where people can share the workload and be able to decide when to come to the farm?

“If there is a system like that, more people who are interested in agriculture will have the chance to do what they want to do,” Kitagawa said.

The system is easy. Interested people sign up online by entering their basic information, such as their age and gender, and select a date and a two-hour task they are willing to do. There are nearly 100 “supporters” registered online, and around four participants gather every day to do simple jobs such as planting seeds and harvesting. They are not paid to work, but they can bring home the crops harvested at the farm.

The greenhouse, called Torefarm, is located on the property of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International in Seika, Kyoto Prefecture, and is full of innovative twists. It makes farming easier for women and the elderly by minimizing the physical workload in the field.

Vegetables such as Japanese mustard spinach and cilantro leaves grow on sand spread on table-like platforms lined up in the greenhouse. Participants can work standing and do not have to bend down.

Sensors and tubes in the sand allow operators to gather information about conditions at the farm through an internet cloud service. Toray Construction officials can provide water and liquid fertilizers by using their smartphones and computers any time, any where.

“There’s a Japanese teaching that says ‘eat until you’re 80 percent full,’ ” Kitagawa said. “I think it applies to working too, especially for elders. It will become a burden if you work too hard, so this system allows people to enjoy farming without the need to push themselves too hard.”

The demonstration is gaining steam and about 30 percent of the participants are aged 60 or over. As word has spread, it has also become a place for local residents to meet new people. Mai Otani, 43, a local housewife, said her involvement has given her something to look forward to during her free time.

“It’s held every day so I’m really thankful that I can just stop by and work for two hours during my spare time,” said Otani, who took part in the experiment in December for the third time. “And we can come whenever we want to and are allowed to make last-minute cancellations too, so I always feel welcomed and it’s easy to come.”

Otani sees the benefits in her meals at home as well. “Sometimes I get to take home vegetables that I usually don’t eat at home, like Chinese water spinach. So we have more dishes on the table, and it’s exciting to come up with recipes too — even though it is fresh and tastes good by itself.”

Tsutomu Okuno, 64, said the best part of his experience is that he gets to interact with people. “Working here is obviously really easy and not physically demanding,” said Okuno. “But it’s more than that — it’s really fun because we get to talk all the time.”

Earlier this year, a consortium led by Toray Construction received about ¥38 million ($335,000) from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications as part of the “Project for IoT services creation.”

The government project requires participants to identify issues that can be solved through the use of the “internet of things” (IoT) while encouraging adoption of the technologies, to create advanced reference models, according to the ministry’s website.

With the funding, Toray Construction is staging another demonstration experiment in Chiba Prefecture. However, Kitagawa said there is still room for improvement if the “sharing” system is to take root.

Kitagawa wants to create a revenue-generating model and make the farms an employment opportunity for seniors as Japan looks to deal with its aging population.

“As aging progresses in our society, I think it will be necessary for senior citizens to work too,” said Kitagawa. “But it’s difficult for them to work like they used to, so they need to start working differently — with less physical requirements. And I want agriculture to play a part in that.”

For that, Kitagawa emphasizes the importance of producing vegetables with higher market value than the Japanese mustard spinach and Chinese cabbage that are currently farmed. “If we produce something with a higher value, we can earn money even if the supporters work slowly,” Kitagawa said. “At the same time, we want to lower the costs at Torefarm so many people can start operating it.”

Kitagawa hopes the “sharing” model breaks new ground in agriculture through community cooperation.

“I think the ‘sharing’ model doesn’t work for people who want to make money through agriculture,” said Kitagawa. “It’s for those who want to cooperate and borrow the hands of residents in the community.”