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Trend toward stronger agriculture seen in Hokkaido

SAPPORO -- Facing a rapidly changing market, due in part to the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan's farmers are busily cultivating overseas markets, and many agricultural cooperatives are implementing reforms to become more competitive. In Hokkaido, the country's most agriculturally rich prefecture, farmers are also getting a much-needed hand from cutting-edge technology.

Tomato plants reach a height of 4 meters at a greenhouse in Tomakomai, Hokkaido. A lift is used to harvest the tomatoes.

     The average acreage under cultivation in the northern prefecture was about 26 hectares per farmer in 2013, nearly 11 times the national average of 2.4 hectares. Enticed by this vast and bountiful environment, a number of major companies are bringing technologies originally developed for nonagricultural use to Hokkaido's farms.

Thrice blessed

A large greenhouse run by J Farm Tomakomai shelters rows of closely grown tomato plants, some 12,000 in all, each standing about 4 meters tall. There are only five or six workers in the greenhouse, but the facility can ship up to 10,000 tomatoes a day.  The company, located in Tomakomai, southwestern Hokkaido, was established jointly by JFE Engineering and an agricultural production corporation in Sapporo.

     Cultivation at this "plant factory" is roughly 50% more efficient than at ordinary greenhouses. In the facility, temperatures are kept at 25 C in the daytime and 15 C at night, even in winter. The concentration of carbon dioxide is maintained at more than twice the level found in open air.

     The facility features a "tri-generation system" developed with JFE Engineering's expertise. Natural gas is burned to drive a generator, and the electricity produced is used to light the greenhouse and an office building. The carbon dioxide produced in the combustion is purified and fed into the greenhouse, and the heat generated is used for space heating in winter.

     In the areas around Tomakomai, temperatures drop to about minus 15 C in midwinter. The efficient use of fuel reduces the cost of vegetable cultivation in the greenhouse, and the business "is profitable year-round," said Koichi Kimura, president of J Farm Tomakomai. The company said it has received many inquiries about the tri-generation system from within Hokkaido and other cold regions, both in Japan and overseas.

     Meanwhile, IHI, a major heavy machinery maker, is conducting demonstration tests with about 300 farmers in Tokachi, an area in southeastern Hokkaido, in hopes of putting its aerospace technology to work in the field.

     A screen connected to a remote sensing system displays images of fields color-coded in red, orange and green. The system analyzes the quantity of chlorophyll, which can vary from place to place, using images captured by satellite. This allows farmers to see differences in the growth conditions of crops at a glance.

     In regions of Japan south of Hokkaido, including the main island of Honshu, landholdings are smaller and it may be more efficient for farmers to go out and physically inspect their fields than to use a satellite-based system. "In Tokachi, where each farmer's agricultural land area is at least 30-40 hectares, it is not easy to go around fields," said an official in IHI's corporate business development division. "Image analysis offers a great advantage."

     The system also measures temperature and the amount of sunlight, updating the data once every hour. By examining field images along with weather data, farmers can easily decide which areas in their vast fields need more fertilizer and whether they need to reschedule their harvest.

     IHI aims to help the partner farmers increase sales and reduce costs by 5% by 2016. Eventually, the company plans to integrate a system for managing the purchase of agricultural supplies and the shipment of farm products into the remote sensing system.

     Mitsui & Co. this autumn started marketing a new variety of onion, Sarasara Gold, in cooperation with Okamoto Plant Breeding, a Hokkaido seed and seedling company located in Kuriyama. The onion is characterized by a higher quercetin content than ordinary varieties. Quercetin is a compound said to help prevent lifestyle-related diseases.

     The onion is grown using a seed developed by Okamoto Plant Breeding, and cultivation is entrusted to farmers in Kitami, in northeastern Hokkaido. By emphasizing the various benefits of the "healthful onion," Mitsui hopes to cultivate new sales outlets, such as department stores. The total yield of Sarasara Gold for the first year is estimated at about 100 tons, but the company hopes to increase it to more than 5,000 tons as soon as possible.

     Although Hokkaido is the largest onion-producing area in Japan, it does not produce any well-known brand of the vegetable. As such, low prices have generally been the go-to strategy for increasing sales.

     Mitsui plans to develop processed foods using Sarasara Gold, and its Hokkaido office hopes to sell the onion overseas.


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