Robots helping to keep Japanese farms alive and thriving

Japanese farmers are under pressure from both cheap imports and declining productivity due to the aging of the population. But some are starting to take action. A high-tech approach is one solution, and they are also changing their way of doing business to take advantage of their strengths.

On a recent evening at 7 p.m., the sound of a machine echoed from a greenhouse in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, in northern Japan. A 1.5-meter tall robot was picking bright red strawberries in the dark, without human assistance.

Using its two high-performance cameras, the robot located the fruit with a flash of light, then gently stretched out its arm to pick only the ripest, sweetest ones. As a result, the farmer can ship fresh strawberries first thing in the morning.

Farm equipment maker Shibuya Seiki developed the harvest robot, which sells for 40 million yen ($374,100) per unit. The company, based in Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku in western Japan, is conducting demonstration experiments of the cutting-edge technology.

Generally speaking, growing strawberries in Japan requires 2,100 man-hours per 1,000 sq. meters. The number is 80 times higher than for rice, another crop that needs great care. Finely-shaped, deliciously sweet strawberries produced in Japan are considered a high-end brand item among wealthy consumers in Asian countries. But Japanese strawberry farmers are coming under heavy pressure due to the shortage of skilled labor.

Japan’s agricultural productivity is rather low compared to other countries, but the development of industrial robots holds promise in easing the problem.

In Tottori Prefecture, western Japan, Coho salmon swim in aquaculture tanks floating off the coast near the city of Sakaiminato.

The facility’s operator, Nippon Suisan Kaisha, has installed auto-feeding robots, delivering just the right amount of feed to maintain the growth of its farmed fish, even in bad weather. The technology also prevents excess feed from polluting the surrounding sea.

Stronger together

Using industrial robots can help keep farms and fishing operations open 24 hours a day, just like a Japanese convenience store.

In Japan, people 65 years old and older account for more than 60% of the agriculture workforce — double the number in the U.S. Many believe that robots hold the key to maximizing productivity of farming and fishing, given the country’s limited land and human resources. Tsukasa Teshima, a senior researcher at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, said the robot will partner with farmers and help create new forms of agriculture. The organization has been conducting research and development on Japanese agriculture and food.

Advanced technology is also starting to challenge the mindset of farmers, who traditionally focus on producing crops, and their products are usually sold by other entities. But at least one early mover is looking to expand its presence in the near future.

In Chiba Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, Shigeru Someya, a rice and wheat farmer, recently introduced a self-driving tractor produced by Japanese farm machinery maker Kubota and spent 1 million yen for a control system. He believes the tractor will improve efficiency, and he has gained management know-how since starting a co-operative farm stand to sell crops directly to consumers. “We set the prices,” said Someya. “Because we are selling our products by ourselves, we can now decide the direction for growth.”

Refurbishing the land

Abandoned farmland in Japan totals roughly 42,000 hectares, about the size of Toyama Prefecture, on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Such disused farmland is expected to continue to expand and deteriorate, due to an inflow of cheap imported agricultural products.

But some innovative companies are bucking the trend. Ehime-based venture company Telefarm has played a key role in bringing new life to farmland left derelict for more than 10 years in the mountains around the city of Ozu, Ehime Prefecture.

Refurbishing the land, including removing tree roots with heavy machinery and other labor, cost roughly 1.3 million yen. But the money did not come from the traditional sources of agricultural cooperatives or banks. The project attracted 140 capital investors from across the country, who are now waiting to see the results of their investment in the reclaimed land. It took three months to raise the cash through crowdfunding — sourcing funds over the internet from a large number of people who agree with the concept of the project. Along with the tech-oriented approach, the internet and its potential to connect any number of people around the world is helping to create new channels of funding in Japanese agriculture.

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