It may not always feel so loved in Australia, but there’s no doubting agriculture’s rising appeal as a corporate investment prospect overseas – notably, even in high-tech Japan.
The investors, however, are not necessarily wealthy industrialists or pension funds looking to cash in on demand for food and changing global consumption habits.
Technology multinationals, manufacturing giants and financial service businesses are typical of the sort of companies making their own moves into Japanese agriculture, and further afield.
They want to make their own intellectual property, technology hardware and other assets agriculturally productive in order to grab some of the farming business action emerging worldwide.
For example, the boffins at world’s fifth largest information technology company, Fujitsu, are in partnership with a seed supplier growing vegetable crops on reclaimed industrial sites – some of them indoors.
Another partner, the Tokyo-based global financial services group Orix Corporation, has a horticulture produce wholesaling arm which markets tomatoes and leafy vegetables grown in a 8.5 hectares greenhouse network built on a freeway corridor.
The farming railwayman
Also contributing land for Fujitsu’s teched-up “smart agriculture” greenhouse trials is a railway company.
It provided two hectares, and a former station master, to manage crops of capsicums and other produce on the southernmost island of Kyushu.
“He had limited experience in agricultural technology before,” said Fujitsu technology leader, Kazutaka Nakamura, whose engineers have installed data collection and decision making technology which activates much of the time-sensitive management work on the “farm”.
Elsewhere, in converted factory sites, Fujitsu is growing lettuce crops in artificial lighting using the company’s own semiconductor technology.
Lettuce under lights
In one high-volume hydroponic operation it grows functional leaf crops where the potassium uptake has been deliberately cut by 80 per cent to yield salad greens which are safe for hospital patients with kidney diseases, including those on dialysis treatments.
Without exposure to outside bacteria or the likelihood of blemishes, the indoor-grown produce also stays fresher for longer after harvest.
Its retail shelf life is typically three weeks, but can remain edible for at least twice that.
“We expect more corporate investment in agriculture by companies like ours now we can have extra help from technical expertise,” Mr Nakamura said.
“We expect increasing agricultural corporate investment coming from outside this field because often these companies have the same issues as ours – they want to revitalise and contribute to local economies.”
While new technology has changed the face and efficiency of Japan’s industrial workplaces by using robots or dispersing manufacturing activities overseas, new-era farming ventures were considered potential ways to get productive value from now underutilised factory sites in regional prefectures, while also maintaining their value to the community.
Mr Nakamura said much of Fujitsu’s work was still at the trial stage or being scaled up within Japan, but the company and its partners intended to export their smart agriculture technology or develop it in overseas ventures.
Dairy fertility rises
One promising project adapted pedometer technology to improve dairy herd artificial insemination (AI) efficiency and calving success rates.
Farmers had complained 60pc of the time a cow’s oestrus cycle began when farm workers were not nearby to observe the animal’s increased movement habits, so they often did not realise she was on heat and ready to AI.
If the opportune timing was missed, cows had to wait another three weeks to get into calf.
Farmers using the technology now have 24 hour remote monitor of animal movement trends via their smartphone and smartphone alerts.
Pregnancy success rates have jumped from 54pc to 90pc.
Other Fujitsu technology remotely monitored and helped lift sweetness and yield deficiencies in citrus crops after analysing data findings and adjusting irrigation schedules and planting layouts.
- Andrew Marshall travelled to Japan as a guest of ANZ