New breed of younger, business- and tech-savvy-farmers are 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 optimum 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 1,000 yen (nine dollars) apiece, to customers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand, where Japanese produce has an excellent reputation.
Such changes, 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 pry open markets such as rice and beef that are protected by tariffs.
Iwasa was running an IT company and getting an MBA in Tokyo when his coastal hometown of Yamamoto in the Northeastern 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.
“Farmers’ intuition and experience may not always result in a good harvest. So it is crucial that we capture that as explicit knowledge in technology and automation, and use that to increase productivity. Also nurturing professional farm managers is needed.”
Such larger-scale agri-businesses, many using new technologies, are the future of Japanese farming, says Kazunuki Ohizumi, professor emeritus at Miyagi University, who has been studying farming trends in Japan for decades.
“Large-sized farmers are the ones to revitalize Japan’s agriculture which will be changed significantly,” he said.
Japan is already seeing a shift toward company-run farms, whose numbers have jumped from 8,700 in 2005 to 20,800 last year.
And 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 less than 18,000 five years ago.