Japanese rice farmers reach out to the world with eco-friendly, smart-farming production
- The city of Tome has long been famous for its rice. Now the city has become one of the first areas to promote environmentally friendly rice production.
- Drones are one example of how innovative technology can make up for labor shortages.
- Tome’s quality rice is earning praise not only at home but abroad, and is expanding its exports.
Miyagi prefecture isn’t just the economic and cultural hub of Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region. Its fertile alluvial plains also make it one of the nation’s major rice producers. Tome, a city in the northern part of the prefecture, has been celebrated for its rice for centuries. Recently, Tome-area growers have joined forces to develop and market their own brand of top-quality rice.
The incentive for their effort is an ongoing nationwide decline in rice consumption. As eating habits diversify, Japanese people are eating less rice. For places like Tome that specialize in the crop, the trend has worrisome implications for the community’s very survival.
Seeking how to best preserve the city’s rice-growing tradition and its rich bounty of nature, the city adapted its rice-cultivation method. As a major producer of one of the country’s staple foods, Tome believed it should pursue the ideal, environmentally sound way to grow rice.
In 2003, JA Miyagi Tome, the local branch of Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA), took the lead in reducing the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers on area paddies. Stringent standards for the amounts of various chemicals applied to the crops became a hallmark of Tome rice.
As JA Miyagi Tome union director Sano Kazuo puts it: “These efforts are motivated above all by our desire to sustain our community. But that’s not all—by converting to eco-friendly rice production, we’re able to provide consumers with the reassurance that the rice they buy is grown using fewer agrichemicals.”
In the nearly two decades since Tome began its endeavor, the reputation of the area’s rice has soared even higher in the domestic market. Today over 80% of Tome’s rice crop is grown according to strict environmental criteria.
Technology to the rescue
However, making their rice more environmentally friendly is not the only challenge facing farmers in Tome.
Like many rural communities in Japan, Tome has suffered from a labor shortage as the population grows older and young people leave for the cities. Over the past twenty years the number of farms in the area has decreased by half. On top of that, trying to grow rice using as few agrichemicals as possible increases the financial burden placed upon farmers in many ways.
Yet amazingly, Tome’s rice acreage has hardly changed at all over the years. The secret lies in the area’s aggressive introduction of state-of-the-art technology. The use of drones to spray pesticides and sensors to monitor water levels enables farmers to manage their paddies with a minimal workforce. In turn, that frees up each farm to expand the acreage it cultivates. The upshot is that the area’s overall crop yield has remained remarkably stable. Unlike other parts of Japan where problems often arise, one sees few if any abandoned paddies in Tome.
JA Miyagi Tome, the local farmers’ cooperative, has been a driving force in the community’s adoption of smart technology. JA not only helps secure government subsidies to relieve the farms’ financial burden when introducing new technology, it also serves as a conduit for the sharing of technical information and know-how among the farmers.
“Our primary objective is to sustain our rice production at its current level well into the future,” says Takeyama Tomoyuki, sales manager of the rice department at JA Miyagi Tome. “The key to that is the ability of farmers to survive on their own. So our job at JA is to facilitate cooperation among the farms in each district so they can maintain their local paddies themselves.”
Making rice production sustainable
Chiba Shota, an ambitious young farmer who has actively sought out technological solutions to increase his rice yield, says technology also helps neutralize the unpredictability of the weather’s effects on farming.
“Thanks to drones, we can spray agrichemicals with half the workforce we used to need. That means if the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse and we have to spray in a hurry, the same number of people can finish in half the time it once took.”
A camera-mounted drone can measure changes in the color and height of the rice plants. This quantitative data on crop growth helps farmers make quick and accurate decisions on how much fertilizer or pesticide to apply, and when, without having to rely solely on past precedent or hunches.
But efficiency is not the only advantage technology gives him, Chiba adds.
Pesticides, for example, have to be diluted in water for spraying. Ground application in the pre-drone days required dilution by a ratio of 1,000 to 1, but aerial spraying by drone can be accomplished with only 10-to-1 dilution. The use of such high-concentration pesticides is made possible by the spraying accuracy of drones. As a result farmers only need to use 1/100 of the water that used to be required for dilution, a significant saving in valuable water resources.
Even more significant, though, is the 100-to-1 reduction in the arduous work of spraying by hand, which entailed long hours carrying heavy tanks of water. Thus drones have drastically cut down on the amount of manual labor farmers must endure.
In fact, a growing number of people appears to have been attracted to the farming life in Tome through the appeal of high-tech agriculture.
Says Chiba, “I think we’re in the middle of a transition to a new way of farming that my parents’ generation could never have imagined. Technologies like the drone are what’s leading us there.”
From Tome to the world
A pioneer in eco-friendly, high-tech rice production at home, Tome’s endeavors are now attracting interest abroad.
JA Miyagi Tome began exporting rice in 2018, and in 2020 was shipping 2,000 tons overseas, making it one of the top rice-exporting JA branches in the country. Demand for Tome’s product is growing not only in Southeast Asian markets like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand, but Australia and the United States as well.
Behind this growth is the worldwide increase in concerns over food safety and the environment. Tome’s strategy for preserving its farms perfectly dovetails with this global trend. And the enthusiastic acceptance their product is receiving abroad is a big shot in the arm for Tome farmers.
“Exports aren’t just a key part of our program to sustain local rice production,” says Sano, the local JA union director. “They’ve also given us added incentive to provide delicious rice to the world.”
Building on years of experience working together to grow premium-quality rice, Tome farmers have now brought their product to the global stage. In their words one senses a desire to set an example for farmers throughout Japan by expanding the export market for the country’s agricultural products.
“Japan is blessed with an environment nurtured by the changing seasons, and our rice is something that can only be grown in a place like this. I want people all over the world to taste how good it is,” Chiba says. His wish seems well on the way to coming true.
This post was created by Insider Studios with the Government of Japan.