In what was once a semiconductor plant, Fujitsu is growing lettuce. Instead of sunlight, Sharp uses LED lamps to feed its lab-grown strawberries. And in a factory that used to crank out floppy discs, Toshiba is growing endives. Welcome to the next generation of high-tech farmhands.
Buoyed by the Japanese government's drive to replace aging farmers and improve farm productivity, Japan's tech giants are learning new tricks as they expand into agriculture. Yet for farmers like Norimitsu Morishita, the new high-tech approaches are mostly just high-tech gimmicks.
After the 2011 nuclear disaster devastated spinach farmers further up north, Morishita who together with his brother, oversees production and distribution on several farms north of Tokyo, began growing the vegetable. To boost productivity, Morishita began looking in to high-tech technology but found most of the methods too expensive.
Instead, last year he began growing spinach through Panasonic's pilot program of cheaper semi-automated greenhouses. These greenhouses still use soil to grow produce, but optimize natural energy such as sunlight and wind to maintain ideal environments for raising crops.
Morishita says the greenhouses have allowed him to contain labor costs while harvesting spinach about eight times a year instead of the usual four. And he thinks the spinach from Panasonic's greenhouses tastes better than batches grown outside because it requires fewer pesticides and is fine-tuned more carefully. He plans to order more greenhouses next year if the rest of the trial finishes successfully.
"Unlike competitors who rely on expensive, large, or close-ended facilities, we can control the environment passively in standard plastic greenhouses," says Takayoshi Tanizawa, head of the Agri-Engineering Project at Panasonic. "Complete control of temperature or humidity is expensive, so instead of a fixed number we aim for appropriate ranges."
Tanizawa says the Panasonic greenhouses, which went on sale this year, cost about 2.5 times more than typical greenhouses and are being targeted at Japan's mid-sized farm companies as well as foreign farmers who may be interested. The company is aiming to generate 5 billion yen ($42 million) of revenue with sales of 1,000 units in Japan by 2018.
Panasonic also has teams developing more experimental methods such as hydroponic farming, which grows plants in water instead of soil.
But for Morishita, those technologies at least for now, don't offer the best solution. "The stuff grown in labs doesn't taste as good or remain as fresh as what comes from the soil," he says. "It just feels better to have something come directly from the earth."