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Down on the factory-farm, Japan's electronics makers are turning over a new leaf

Tim Hornyak | May 28, 2014
From July, Toshiba will begin shipping spinach, lettuce, baby leaf greens, sprouts and mizuna greens. They will be grown in a germ-free clean room at a factory that once made floppy disks.

The manufacturers are betting on increasing demand for produce from plant factories. The market for farming facilities that only use artificial lights such as LEDs is expected to grow to ¥44 billion in 2025 from ¥3 billion last year, according to Yano Research Institute.

The IT farming trend, however, isn't restricted to vegetables or factories. Hitachi's GeoMation Farm is an IT agriculture-management system that can help forecast growth and determine the best harvest time for cereal crops such as wheat, which has an optimum harvest window in Japan of only one to two weeks.

A project called Nosho Navi, coordinated by Kyushu University, focuses on Japan's all-important rice crop. Farmers in Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto use smartphones to upload data on rice paddy watering to a cloud server that can give harvesting advice.

Sharp, meanwhile, is trying to grow Japanese strawberries in the Middle East.

"Japanese strawberries are large and delicate, and being close to the market will be advantageous for the production," said Miyuki Nakayama, a Sharp spokeswoman.

The strawberries can fetch a high price if they reach the Middle Eastern market before spoiling.

Sharp is using controlled LED lighting, its proprietary air-purifying technology and humidity and temperature monitoring systems to optimize strawberry growth in a small, 108-square-meter facility in Dubai.

NEC is also cultivating fruit. It has helped build a hydroponic greenhouse in Pune, India, that is remotely controlled from Japan to grow strawberries in coco peat.

Japanese IT companies are trying to cultivate new markets, bringing their IT manufacturing know-how and idled facilities to bear, but the move is part of a broader reform of Japan's protected agriculture sector, which is struggling with an aging population of farmers.

"Japanese farming has traditionally been a small-lot, family business," said Takeshi Ikeda, an enterprise networking and communications analyst at Gartner. "It's not automated, but some farmers are trying to do it in a smarter way by using IT power."

Other manufacturers and supermarket chains are part of the drive to make farming in Japan more efficient, Ikeda added, but a large proportion of farmers has yet to embrace IT solutions.

"They're more conservative and they don't want to change," he said.

 

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