By Sophie Knight
SHIZUOKA/OSAKA Japan (Reuters) - Japanese technology firms are applying their expertise in energy-saving and cloud technology to help farmers cope with shifting weather patterns, an onslaught of cheaper imports and a shrinking workforce.
Panasonic Corp, Fujitsu Ltd and others, seeking niche business opportunities to offset a downturn in demand for their consumer electronics, are touting automated greenhouses and sensor-controlled fields that ensure constant conditions to produce high-quality vegetables all year-round.
Fujitsu says its Akisai cloud-based farming system means users can sit at a desk in Tokyo or even New York while tending vegetables in Shizuoka, using a tablet to operate sprinklers, fans and heaters in response to changes in heat and moisture tracked by sensors in fields or greenhouses.
Companies are also converting factories into farms: Toshiba Corp is to start growing vegetables at a former floppy disk plant near Tokyo, while Panasonic is growing radishes and lettuce inside a Singapore factory, and Sharp Corp is trialling an indoor strawberry farm in Dubai.
This tech push into farming is endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, which is promoting robotics and sensors to boost farm production and exports – essential if Japan concedes to lower agricultural tariffs in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
Domestic demand for farming systems using information technology and the cloud is expected to expand ninefold to 60 billion yen ($586 million) by 2020, according to market research firm Seed Planning, as farmers fret over the impact of climate change on their crops. Last year's summer was Japan's hottest on record, with temperatures in Tokyo topping 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) for a week straight in early August.
"For the past 4-5 years, vegetable prices have gone up every year because of the heat," says Takayoshi Tanizawa, the manager of Panasonic's greenhouse project. "Farmers are in a bind because they can't grow summer vegetables any more. They say they've never experienced this kind of heat before. There are also many bouts of heavy rain. Unusual weather is becoming more and more 'normal'."
While indoor farming has taken off in the United States and Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, those systems are designed more for a colder climate and are only equipped with heating, rather than cooling systems. In Japan, rising electricity costs mean that energy-intensive methods, such as blasting out air conditioning, aren't a cost-effective solution.
"The Japanese model that deals with high temperatures and humidity is more appropriate for Japan and other Asian countries," says Yasufumi Miwa, an agricultural specialist at the Japan Research Institute.
Panasonic has developed a "passive", low-energy greenhouse that uses sensor-activated fans, sprinklers and curtains instead of air conditioning to keep heat and humidity at a constant - whether it's January or July. Fujitsu similarly offers solar-powered posts equipped with thermometers, humidity sensors and cameras for farmers' fields.
Greenhouses cover 11 percent of the land used to cultivate vegetables in Japan, but account for 15 percent of total output, or 165 billion yen ($1.6 billion), and farmers who use them can have double the revenue of those who use open fields as they more consistently produce high-quality vegetables.
Although Panasonic's greenhouses aren't cheap, at 55 million yen ($540,000) for a set of ten, the company says the cost can be recouped within seven years, and estimates it is half the price of a system using air conditioning. A constant temperature can double harvests to eight a year, says Panasonic, which aims to sell 1,000 of its greenhouses by the year ending March 2017 and hopes the system will eventually be used to produce a tenth of Japan's spinach output, or 26,000 tons.
High-tech systems that can produce higher-quality premium vegetables could give Japanese farmers the competitive edge they will need if the country joins the TPP, the free trade agreement it's negotiating with 11 other countries.
"It's like semiconductors ... the low-cost ones have to be sold at high-volume to keep costs low, whereas Japan's semiconductor industry is about developing the next generation and to add value," said Takeshi Sudo, senior vice president of innovative business development at Fujitsu.
Low on effort and high on tech, Fujitsu's Akisai system is designed to attract young blood into a sector where the average Japanese farmer is 66 years old. Using big data to analyze climate against output over a year can help newcomers understand what conditions are ideal: one test user increased his revenue by 30 percent and used nearly one-third less fertilizer.
Fujitsu says it has around 200 customers for the Akisai system which it launched in 2012, including supermarket retailer Aeon Co Ltd, which uses it to grow and time the distribution of perfectly ripe vegetables from 15 farms straight to stores. It aims to reap 15 billion yen ($150 million) in revenue by the year to end-March 2016.
And the system hasn't ignored the meat industry either.
As Japan's government hopes to expand beef exports fivefold by 2020, Fujitsu has come up with an anklet for heifers - which could be the world's first wearable for cows.
The Gyuho, or 'cow step', pedometer can pinpoint when a heifer is most fertile based on how much she walks around. The farmer is sent an email alert so he can rush to artificially inseminate the cow and have a higher chance of meeting the target of one calf per year - a big potential improvement when a head of cattle can fetch up to $5,000 at auction.
"Before, you'd either have to get on top of the cow and see if she objected or not, or else check the floor to see if there were a lot of hoofprints," said Hiroshi Kadomatsu, a beef farmer in Miyazaki prefecture in southern Japan.
"I'm not quite at 100 percent success rate with Gyuho yet, but it's certainly a lot better than before."
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)