Down on the factory-farm, Japan's electronics makers are turning over a new leaf

Aging farmers and factories have prompted innovation in an industry resistant to change

A Sharp staffer examines Japanese strawberries grown with IT know-how.

A Sharp staffer examines Japanese strawberries grown with IT know-how.

Sure, you could buy a laptop, tablet or cloud service from Toshiba. But how about some spinach?

The Tokyo-based conglomerate is joining other IT firms in Japan by getting into high-tech farming. The companies say there's demand for vegetables that are free of pesticides and other substances, as well as produce with specific nutritional profiles.

From July, Toshiba will begin shipping spinach, lettuce, baby leaf greens, sprouts and mizuna greens. They will be grown in a germ-free clean room at a factory that once made floppy disks.

The 1,969-square-meter facility in Yokosuka southwest of Tokyo had been lying idle, but it's being dusted off to grow vegetables that will be sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants. They will have an extended shelf-life compared to field-grown crops.

The agricultural technology installed includes fluorescent lighting that has a wavelength optimized for vegetable growth, monitoring systems to track the growth and a production management system based on methods used in semiconductor device manufacturing.

Japanese consumers want produce untainted by pesticides or other substances, according to Toshiba, which is aiming for annual sales of ¥300 million (US$2.9 million). It also plans to harvest vegetables that are rich in polyphenols and vitamin C.

"To meet these increasing demands, a closed-type plant factory that operates under almost aseptic conditions is ideal for production," a Toshiba spokeswoman said.

"Toshiba has all the integral technologies to achieve such a factory, including energy production and control, lighting, water and air control, ICT and a high level of production management. This is the major reason for us to enter the business."

Toshiba's move follows Fujitsu's production of lettuce grown in a sterile facility that was once used to make chips for mobile phones and other devices.

The leafy greens are raised in hydroponic racks with the help of sensors and cloud computing systems. They're also specially low in potassium and targeted at the more than 1 million Japanese who have chronic kidney disease. At about ¥500 per 90-gram bag, the lettuce is about twice the cost of regular lettuce in Japan, but it can be eaten without being washed.

"By using a clean room environment, virtually no contaminants will come into contact with the vegetables as dust that could be a breeding ground for bacteria is almost entirely nonexistent," said Koji Nomaki, a spokesman for group company Fujitsu Home & Office Services.

Fujitsu's cloud service for crops, dubbed Akisai, can help managers control factors such as internal air temperatures, humidity, CO2 levels, fertilizer levels, pH and electrical conductivity.

"If a product lot is unsatisfactory, the environmental factors of that particular lot can be confirmed and analyzed to develop countermeasures that prevent further occurrence of poor results," Nomaki said.

The manufacturers are betting on increasing demand for produce from plant factories. The market for farming facilities that only use artificial lights such as LEDs is expected to grow to ¥44 billion in 2025 from ¥3 billion last year, according to Yano Research Institute.

The IT farming trend, however, isn't restricted to vegetables or factories. Hitachi's GeoMation Farm is an IT agriculture-management system that can help forecast growth and determine the best harvest time for cereal crops such as wheat, which has an optimum harvest window in Japan of only one to two weeks.

A project called Nosho Navi, coordinated by Kyushu University, focuses on Japan's all-important rice crop. Farmers in Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto use smartphones to upload data on rice paddy watering to a cloud server that can give harvesting advice.

Sharp, meanwhile, is trying to grow Japanese strawberries in the Middle East.

"Japanese strawberries are large and delicate, and being close to the market will be advantageous for the production," said Miyuki Nakayama, a Sharp spokeswoman.

The strawberries can fetch a high price if they reach the Middle Eastern market before spoiling.

Sharp is using controlled LED lighting, its proprietary air-purifying technology and humidity and temperature monitoring systems to optimize strawberry growth in a small, 108-square-meter facility in Dubai.

NEC is also cultivating fruit. It has helped build a hydroponic greenhouse in Pune, India, that is remotely controlled from Japan to grow strawberries in coco peat.

Japanese IT companies are trying to cultivate new markets, bringing their IT manufacturing know-how and idled facilities to bear, but the move is part of a broader reform of Japan's protected agriculture sector, which is struggling with an aging population of farmers.

"Japanese farming has traditionally been a small-lot, family business," said Takeshi Ikeda, an enterprise networking and communications analyst at Gartner. "It's not automated, but some farmers are trying to do it in a smarter way by using IT power."

Other manufacturers and supermarket chains are part of the drive to make farming in Japan more efficient, Ikeda added, but a large proportion of farmers has yet to embrace IT solutions.

"They're more conservative and they don't want to change," he said.

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Tags environmentNECFujitsusharptoshibahitachiElectronics manufacturing

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Tim Hornyak

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