MATSUYAMA, EHIME PREF. - A service launched by an agriculture venture in 2010 combines the fun of an online game with tangible benefits, as players receive produce in exchange for managing a virtual farm linked to real-world cultivation.
The service connecting consumers with farmers through gamification, started by Telefarm Co. based in Ehime Prefecture, has been drawing renewed attention since e-commerce giant Rakuten Inc. teamed up and relaunched the service as Ragri in 2017.
Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in nongame contexts. Ragri players grow vegetables and fruit on virtual farms they manage via their smartphone or personal computer.
What makes Ragri different from other online farming games is that the online crops are actually cultivated by farmers.
Players first select which crops they want to grow from a wide selection determined by season and the farmer to whom they wish to entrust the cultivation.
The players pay for seed and labor. For instance, if players start growing spinach in early April, they can expect to harvest it in two months and receive between five and 10 packs of the vegetable in early June for a total cost of ¥2,100, including ¥800 for shipping, according to the Ragri website.
By using their device to manage their virtual crops, including watering and fertilizing as well as the removal of weeds and pests, players can increase the produce they receive.
The farmers also keep players updated by sending photographs and comments about the state of the crops.
If a farmer is unable to meet the minimum guaranteed harvest due to poor weather or bird and animal damage, the player receives Rakuten points, equivalent in value to the cultivation fees paid, that can be used for shopping and other purposes.
While the Ragri service allows players to enjoy virtual farming, it is aimed at helping to ensure stable revenues for farmers, especially newcomers.
Players pay fees at the start of cultivation and every 30 days until the crop is harvested, ensuring farmers receive regular revenue.
Shinobu Endo, the 48-year-old president of Telefarm, said he launched Telefarm Remote Farming, the service Ragri is based on, to help revitalize agriculture in Japan after witnessing the decline of rural villages when he visited a mountainous region in Ehime Prefecture.
Nearly 5 million people were engaged in agriculture in Japan in 1990, but the number had dwindled to less than 2 million by 2016.
Ragri players say they enjoy the service, although buying vegetables through it is more expensive than at a supermarket.
“Juicy and tasty vegetables are exceptionally good, and we can also feel good about ourselves for supporting farmers,” said Kenichi Watanabe, 67, who has been using the service for about six years.
Takeshi Okame, 37, has been growing figs and lemons in Saijo, Ehime Prefecture, as a Ragri contract farmer.
“Communicating with consumers from the growing stage of crops can help us to work harder,” he said.
In response to the increasing number of Ragri users, Telefarm established a farming base for the service in Hiroshima Prefecture last year.
“We would like to contribute to the revitalization of local agriculture by expanding our business,” Endo said.