Tech-savvy farmers a new hope for Japan’s shrinking agriculture sector



A new generation of younger farmers, specializing in business and technology, is transforming the agriculture sector down by Japan with advanced techniques and marketing strategies, giving new Hopes for a slowly declining industry.

Hiroki Iwasa, a 40-year-old computer entrepreneur with an MBA, grows strawberries in seven high-tech greenhouses where computers set temperature and humidity at optimum growth conditions and ensure that rows of bushes Are sprayed with water at specific times.

He markets his "Migaki Ichigo" brand strawberries directly to fancy stores in Tokyo, where they go as high as 1000 yen ($ 9) each, as well as customers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, where Japanese products have an excellent reputation.

These changes, while small, come as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes to reform Japan 's hidden agricultural industry, where small – scale farms still dominate, the average farmer has more than 66 Years and the sector's contribution to the economy has fallen by 25% since its peak in 1984.

They should also make Japan more resilient if the US is trying – as the trade representative Robert Lighthizer has suggested – to lead to open markets such as rice and beef that are protected by prices.

Iwasa runs a computer company and obtains an MBA in Tokyo when his coastal town of Yamamoto in Miyagi's northeast prefecture, a region famous for strawberries, was hit by the March 2011 tsunami.

He rushed to help rescue efforts and later had the opportunity to combine his technical skills with the specialized know-how of a local farmer.

He now runs GRA Inc., a 6-year-old company with 20 full-time employees and 50 part-time employees, including four dedicated to managing orders abroad.

"The intuition and experience of farmers may not always result in a good harvest, so it is essential that we captivate this as an explicit knowledge of technology and automation, And that we use this to increase productivity, "said Iwasa. "Also encourage professional farm managers is necessary."

By renting the surrounding land, Iwasa has extended his farm to two hectares (about five acres), about 10 times the size of an average strawberry farm in Japan.

These larger scale agribusinesses, many of which are using new technologies, are the future of Japanese agriculture, says Kazunuki Ohizumi, Professor Emeritus at Miyagi University, who is studying Agricultural trends in Japan for decades.

"Large farmers are those who revitalize Japanese agriculture, which will be significantly altered," he said. "Of course, IT, robots and artificial intelligence are needed, which will generate jobs to manage these technologies."

Japan is already seeing a shift towards farms run by the company, whose figures jumped from 8,700 in 2005 to 20,800 last year.

And the number of young people working in agriculture is increasing slowly. The agricultural industry added just over 23,000 workers under 49 in 2015, compared with less than 18,000 five years.

Ohizumi predicts that sales of large farms – those with more than 50 million yen ($ 450,000) in sales – will increase to three-quarters of total sales by 2030, up from 41% in 2015.

Shuichi Yokota, a 41-year-old rice grower in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, says Japanese rice farmers have been protected by subsidies and public tariffs for too long.

Japan imposes a heavy amount of 341 yen (3.09 $) per kg on imported rice, apart from its non-tariff World Trade Organization (WTO) bonds, while the government offers subsidies ranging from Up to 105,000 yen ($ 950) per 0.1 hectare (0.25 acres).

Farmers should aim to become as globally competitive as the country's famous Toyota and Honda car brands, said Yokota.

"If you fail business management, you have to leave. It 's the same in other industries," he said. "If you can not cut production costs or secure customers, you will go bankrupt."

When Yokota became a farmer after graduating from college 20 years ago, his family had about 16 hectares. As the older farmers in the area retired, he began to lease their land.

He now oversees a 140-acre (346-acre) rice farm, much larger than the average three-acre (7.5-acre) farm.

The company develops several different varieties for planting and harvest to be distributed and uses electronic sensors to measure water levels and temperature in paddies as well as the condition of rice .

"Government subsidies will ultimately have to end because they are not sustainable," Yokota said. "Farmers should produce goods that have a market."



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