A NEW BREED OF FARMERS

Tech-savvy generation a growing hope for Japan's agriculture sector

Mr Hiroki Iwasa in his high-tech greenhouse in Yamamoto town. He markets his strawberries to department stores in Tokyo, as well as to customers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.
Mr Hiroki Iwasa in his high-tech greenhouse in Yamamoto town. He markets his strawberries to department stores in Tokyo, as well as to customers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.PHOTO: REUTERS

YAMAMOTO-CHO (Japan) • Farmers who are younger and business- and tech-savvy are transforming Japan's shrinking agriculture sector with cutting-edge techniques and marketing strategies, giving new hope to an industry in slow decline.

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

He markets his Migaki Ichigo brand of strawberries directly to fancy department stores in Tokyo, where they go for as much as 1,000 yen (S$12.40) 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 Japan's hidebound farm industry where small-plot holdings still dominate, the average farmer is aged over 66, and the sector's contribution to the economy has fallen by 25 per cent since its peak in 1984.

They should also make Japan more resilient if the United States tries - as Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has hinted - to prise open markets such as rice and beef that are protected by tariffs.

Mr Iwasa was running an IT company and getting an MBA in Tokyo when his coastal home town of Yamamoto in the north-eastern prefecture of Miyagi, an area famous for strawberries, was hit by the March 2011 tsunami.

He rushed to help with relief efforts and later saw an opportunity to combine his tech skills with the specialised know-how of a local farmer.

He now heads six-year-old GRA Inc, which has 20 full-time employees and 50 part-timers, including four dedicated to managing overseas orders.

"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," Mr Iwasa said.

"Nurturing professional farm managers is also needed."

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

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

"Large-sized farmers are the ones to revitalise Japan's agriculture, which will be changed significantly," he said.

"Of course, IT, robots and artificial intelligence are needed, which will generate jobs to handle such technologies."

Japan is seeing a shift towards company-run farms, whose numbers have jumped from 8,700 in 2005 to 20,800 last year.

The number of young 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 fewer than 18,000 five years ago.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2017, with the headline 'Tech-savvy generation a growing hope for Japan's agriculture sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe