National | Regional voices: Chubu

Toyota's optical sensors might help farmers raise crop yields through quick soil analysis

Chunichi Shimbun

Toyota Motor Corp. has started testing a service that analyzes farm soil with optical sensors, allowing farmers to strategically distribute fertilizer to increase crop yields.

The experiment in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, uses the automaker’s so-called Toyota Production System, which was developed to maximize production efficiency based on data analysis.

By clarifying soil composition and offering suggestions on fertilizer amount and other important factors needed to make the best soil for growing crops, Toyota hopes to make it easier for farmers to pass their expertise down to younger generations.

“We hope that digitizing the experiences and intuition of artisan-like farmers, and offering cultivation guidance based on that data, will lead to solving the problem” with farmers lacking successors, said Takeshi Kanamori, head of Toyota’s agriculture support division.

In the experiment, a tractor tows an optical sensor inserted into the ground. The sensor measures the amount of light the soil absorbs, which differs according to soil composition, every 50 cm.

The data is then combined with GPS data to create a map showing the distribution of 30 soil components related to crop growth, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Through the analysis, Toyota can offer diagnoses and soil improvement plans that can tell clients which crops are best suited for their land and which fertilizers they should use to raise yields.

Farmers who want their soil diagnosed usually have to gather samples from several locations in their fields during the offseason and send them out for analysis. In some cases, it can take a couple of months to get the results, which can be too late to make adjustments.

By using the new technology developed jointly by Toyota and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, the time required can be shortened to a week or two.

In addition, the technology makes it possible for all of one’s farmland to be measured thoroughly, allowing farmers to calculate exactly how much fertilizer is needed. This means the technology can help reduce costs and reduce the impact on the environment.

In the experiment, which will be conducted through December, Toyota is providing the new service to a rice farmer in Suzuka and collecting data with Tokai Trading Co., a supplier of agricultural materials in Yokkaichi. They are planning to conduct the experiment in other regions as well.

Toyota started developing ways to support farmers in 2011 to contribute to local development. Based on the TPS, it developed a system to manage farm tasks via smartphone, and more than 80 agricultural production corporations now use it. Toyota believes its new soil service will help farmers further improve their efficiency.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 28.