Tech-savvy farmers transforming Japan’s shrinking ag sector

A new breed of younger, business- and tech-savvy farmers is transforming Japan’s shrinking agriculture sector with cutting-edge techniques and marketing strategies, giving new hope to an industry in slow decline.

Hiroki Iwasa, a 40-year-old IT entrepreneur with an MBA, grows strawberries in seven, high-tech greenhouses where computers set the temperature and humidity to optimal growing conditions and ensure the rows of bushes are sprayed with water at precise times.

He markets his Migaki Ichigo-brand strawberries directly to fancy department stores in Tokyo, where they go for as much as ¥1,000 apiece, as well as to customers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, where Japanese produce has an excellent reputation.

Such changes, while small, come as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes to reform the nation’s hidebound farming industry, where small-plot holdings still dominate, the average farmer is over 66 years old and the sector’s contribution to the economy has fallen by 25 percent since its peak in 1984.

“Farmers’ intuition and experience may not always result in a good harvest. So it’s crucial that we capture that as explicit knowledge in technology and automation, and use that to increase productivity,” Iwasa said. “Also the nurturing of professional farm managers is needed.”

By leasing surrounding land, Iwasa expanded his farm to 2 hectares, which is about 10 times the size of an average strawberry farm in Japan.

Such larger-scale agribusinesses, many using new technologies, are the future, said Kazunuki Ohizumi, professor emeritus at Miyagi University who has been studying farming trends in Japan for decades.

“Large-scale farmers are the ones to revitalize Japan’s agriculture, which will be changed significantly,” he said. “Of course, IT, robots and artificial intelligence are needed. They will generate jobs to handle such technologies.”

The shift is already underway toward company-run farms, whose numbers jumped to 20,800 last year from 8,700 in 2005.

The number of younger people working in agriculture is slowly rising. The farm industry added just over 23,000 workers under the age of 49 in 2015, up from less than 18,000 five years ago.

Ohizumi predicts that sales from large farms — those with more than ¥50 million in sales — will rise to about three-quarters of total sales by 2030, up from 41 percent in 2015.


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