National | Beyond Tokyo

IT services touted as key to future of Japan's farming sector

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Self-driving tractors, tomato-picking robots, camera-mounted drones to survey fields and spot crop damage, and satellite data from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to help farms keep track of climate and weather data.

At over a dozen booths beside the G20 farm ministers’ meeting venue earlier this month in the Sea of Japan city of Niigata, agricultural organizations and technology firms touted products and services they see as necessary tools to ensure a prosperous future for agriculture.

“In today’s Japan, the aging of farmers has become an issue, and the overall population of the country is decreasing. Collaboration between agriculture and nonagricultural sectors, such as satellite technology, IoT (“internet of things,” internet connectivity into physical devices like tractors) and artificial intelligence has a key role to play in fostering agricultural innovation,” said Susumu Hamamura, parliamentary vice minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The increased use of easily accessible data on tablet computers and smartphones to provide farmers with a wide range of agricultural data was a key message at the Niigata conference.

“Local farmers in Japan have concerns that may be quite different compared to other countries. Often, there are too many small fields they have to tend, and they can’t always remember how much fertilizer was used on each field,” said Hirotomo Nagai, founder and CEO of water-cell inc., which provides management software to local farmers.

To help farmers remember what has been done in their fields, Nagai developed agri-note, an app that helps them keep track. Agri-note provides maps of each field, labels them (such as Field 1 or Field 2) and keeps track of farming details, including the type of crops grown, a summary of the work done and the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used.

In addition, Nagai says, electronic sensors can be attached to tractors and plows to provide data on soil conditions for rice planting. Satellite data can help inform farmers about crop growth patterns. Drones with high-resolution imaging can spot weeds or disease, allowing farmers to deal with the problems more quickly and efficiently.

“With so many small-sized agricultural plots in Japan, it is a lot of work using manual labor to check all of the fields,” Nagai says.

Behind the rush to introduce new technologies lie several factors — the decline of the farming industry, aging farmers and more farmers operating smaller in scale.

According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on Japan’s agriculture released May 11, the nation’s agricultural production decreased by more than 25 percent since 1990 while the number of commercial farm households and agricultural workers declined by more than 50 percent in the same period.

Those that remain today are also, on average, much older than just a quarter century ago.

According to the agriculture ministry, the average age of agricultural workers increased from 59.1 years to 66.8 years between 1995 and 2018, when over two-thirds of all Japanese agricultural workers were 65 years old and older.

Another key change from the past is the increased importance of relatively few large-scale farms, especially in terms of their economic output.

“Small farmers in Japan producing less than ¥2 million worth of products annually account for 70 percent of the total. But those producing ¥30 million or more annually, which account for just 3 percent of Japanese farms, are producing more than half of the country’s agricultural products,” said Shingo Kimura, an agricultural policy analyst at the OECD who helped author the report, during a symposium in Niigata.

But some small-scale farmers say what they really need is not sensors on tractors and drones to monitor crops but more down-to-earth solutions.

More than 500 kilometers from the agriculture technology showcase in Niigata is the city of Kyoto’s Keihoku district where lush green valleys, river gorges, traditional houses and farm fields dominate the view.

Agriculture has formed the basis of the local culture and economy for 1,000 years in the Keihoku district, which has a population of roughly 5,000.

Soybeans, rice and different varieties of vegetables such as mizuna (mustard greens), Fushimi tōgarashi (green pepper), and turnips are available at a local roadside market, and natto mochi is the Keihoku district’s claim to culinary fame.

It’s here where Naoya Matsudaira, an academic researcher on Japan’s agricultural policy who also runs the organic Singing Paddy Farm, is located. The farm produces around 60 different varieties of vegetables annually, some of which are used in traditional Kyoto cuisine.

For Matsudaira, the technologies trumpeted in Niigata and by the central government are weighted toward the demands of large-scale, corporate-run farms.

“The needs of small, community farmers are often different from the government’s policy and much of the work done by farmers, especially in hilly or mountainous areas, involves monitoring and repairing irrigation systems, things that have to be done by hand. Drones for spraying pesticides? People at the local level are interested in more sustainable farming methods,” he says.

The government estimated that Japan’s organic food market was worth about ¥185 billion based on a consumer survey in 2017. Yano Research Institute, meanwhile, estimates that the market will expand to ¥196 billion in 2022.

“What’s needed for more growth of the organic food sector are more tie-ups and cooperation between organic producers and suppliers, so that we can lower the distribution costs,” says Seiji Nonaka, the head of MOA International, a Shizuoka-based firm selling organic products.

But getting younger people interested in small or organic farming is particularly tough, Matsudaira says, for any number of reasons. Some are the result of central government policies, including government promotion of new IT and other technologies instead of more support for less expensive alternatives. Others are social or cultural causes which have no easy solutions.

“New-entry farmers and recent arrivals to a rural area have it tough. Those native to the area (come from families that) have been farming for hundreds of years or more. They have very tight communities and traditional ways of doing things,” he said.

“In addition, it’s not just farming. There is a lot of communal work involved in living in a small farming village — work not directly related to working in a field. This work is a burden for newcomers, because it means they spend less time actually tending their crops,” Matsudaira, who moved to the Keihoku area from central Kyoto about 15 years ago, said.

The agricultural ministry, the large commercial farms and small organic farmers like Matsudaira’s differ, sometimes greatly, in their attitudes and approaches toward farming. But all agree on one thing — that severe weather patterns due to climate change represent one of the largest threats to continued stable agriculture production in Japan.

“Last year, Kyoto saw heavy rains and power outages at the end of June and early July and then it didn’t rain for three weeks. With bigger farms, the risk of damage due to climate change is also greater. Maintaining steady sales given these extreme weather events due to climate change is extremely difficult,” Matsudaira said.

“Around the world, agriculture is the industry that is most vulnerable to climate change. Japan faces problems like the quality deterioration of rice and fruits due to extreme heat and heavy rains that are the result of climate change,” farm minister Takamori Yoshikawa told an international symposium on climate change and agriculture in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, on May 13.

Yoshikawa has raised a basic reality about the agricultural sector that farmers — and consumers — will always have to bear in mind. The inherent unpredictability of nature — a flash flood or drought — can wipe out an annual crop. In addition, to respond to the damage, physical labor will still be needed no matter how much “smart” technology is available.

For the government and for many policy-makers, large-scale, high-tech agriculture is a key way to reduce the risk and damage due to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. For smaller farmers, reducing risk might mean remaining small, lower-tech and nimble, so as to reduce potential financial losses to recover more quickly if a natural disaster strikes.

But with Japan’s agro-food export market booming — on track to reach ¥1 trillion by next year — coupled with the popularity of Japanese agricultural products among foreign visitors to Japan, there are also opportunities for those seeking to enter the farming sector.

The OECD’s Kimura said that, as agriculture around the world becomes more technological and data-driven, and given the government’s increased emphasis on agricultural exports, there will be more opportunities for those in Japan seeking to become farmers.

“As (Japan’s) basic agriculture changes, exports will grow and younger farmers will bring entrepreneurship to the farming sector,” he said.

Beyond Tokyo is a series that focuses on regional developments and events of national importance elsewhere in Japan.

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