These smartphone apps are helping farmers in Japan

By Yuko Fukaya, Kyodo

Posted at Jan 26 2014 07:55 AM | Updated as of Jan 27 2014 05:32 PM

HIKONE, Japan -- Smartphone apps that help farmers monitor crops and control costs are gaining popularity in Japan, where the aging of society continues to thin the ranks of skilled veterans in the agricultural sector.

Software developers are also interested in enhancing the development of smartphone applications for agriculture as more and more farmers are expected to improve economies of scale and turn their businesses into companies if the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks make progress.

Early in September 2013, Yoichiro Nagai, a 34-year-old employee of Fukuhara Farm, an agricultural entity based in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, passed his smartphone over IC tags on rice paddies after having controlled the water valve.

Nagai was sending such information as what he did that day and how much the rice had grown to the online data network system dubbed "Nosho Navi."

"In rice cropping, the amount of water used is different depending on the climate, soil and the growth situation," Nagai said.

The Nosho Navi system makes recommendations on the amount of water for each rice paddy and the timing for harvesting, which are often difficult for inexperienced farmers to decide.

Kyushu University in southern Japan led the development of the system and smartphone application with the aim of passing down the skills of veteran farmers to younger generations. Fukuhara Farm joined the project, launching experimental business in 2010.

Fukuhara Farm is one of the largest farming entities in Shiga Prefecture, boasting about 165 hectares of land, about 35 times the size of Tokyo Dome, and a workforce of 15.

"To maintain the quality and yield in large-scale management, we need to develop a solid plan," said 59-year-old President Shoichi Fukuhara. "Information technologies facilitate operations for beginners and raise manpower."

Kyushu University professor Teruaki Nanseki, who heads the Nosho Navi project, said, "The number of farming companies has been increasing over the past decade and the farming business, which has been largely dominated by family management, is experiencing a major change in recent years."

Nanseki explained that Japanese farmers used to take a "seat-of-the-pants" approach, but that the size of the business has been enlarging, raising the need to use information technologies in management just like ordinary companies.

The Nosho Navi application "helps farmers deal with climate change and other risks and make accurate calculations on costs," Nanseki said.

Companies are also capitalizing on the demand for farming support services expected to increase in years ahead.

Fujitsu Ltd., which is taking part in the Nosho Navi project, launched a support service for farmers in 2012 in a wide range of areas from management to production and sales.

The company has already received more than 1,000 inquiries from farmers and aims to increase the number of users of the service to 20,000 by fiscal 2015, according to Fujitsu officials.