Dec 12, 2023VISION & IDEA
DENSO Grows Delicious Vegetables in Date City, Hokkaido?
Challenges to Revitalize Local Communities Starting with “Smart Greenhouse"
This summer, bright red cherry tomatoes, colorful bell peppers, and cucumbers were ripened in this greenhouse constructed in Hokkaido.
Utilizing the technologies cultivated in the mobility business field, DENSO is currently working on creating new value and solving issues such as the declining population of farmers and unstable agricultural production due to climate change.
In September 2022, Date City in Hokkaido, DENSO CORPORATION and DENSO AgriTech Solutions, Inc. signed a "Comprehensive Partnership Agreement for Regional Revitalization through Agriculture" and have been conducting demonstration experiments of cultivation in greenhouses using ICT to foster farmers and promote local industry.
We visited Masayuki Kobayashi, Tomoki Yamane, and Takehiro Tamura from the Food Value Chain Business Development Division, who are on loan to Date City, to hear about the background of the demonstration experiment, the state of the greenhouse, and their prospects for the future.
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Construction of the agricultural greenhouse began with a desire to revitalize the local community
Kobayashi says the collaboration with the city was made possible since "we shared the same desire to promote the local industry through agriculture”.
Kobayashi: "Date City has a relatively mild climate throughout the year in Hokkaido. The city also has a thriving agricultural industry, and since its settlement in the early Meiji period, it was one of the first areas to actively introduce new knowledge and technology from advanced countries, such as Western-style farming methods. In recent years, Date City has been working on industrial promotion and local revitalization centered on agriculture, such as branding "Date-yasai" (specifically certified vegetable varieties grown in Date City) and focusing on its promotion.
However, the aging ratio of farmers in this city is much higher than the provincial and national average due to the outflow of young people to urban areas, and thus the shortage of farmers is a serious issue here.
To solve this issue, DENSO intends to stabilize business management and make agriculture more attractive through smart agriculture using the systems and solutions we are developing in the field of food and agriculture. We shared the same vision with Date City that we could revitalize the region through agriculture, not only by supporting existing farmers but also by promoting a new form of farming that would attract many people."
The first initiative is an ICT-based farming demonstration in an agricultural greenhouse. Yamane told us why they started with it.
Yamane: "An agricultural greenhouse is a 'closed environment' just like a parts manufacturing plant.” By applying the technology DENSO possesses, which has been used in manufacturing around the world, to agricultural greenhouses, we have sought to create a stable growing environment and planned harvests throughout the year.
It was a challenge for Date City to introduce horticulture to a cold region like Hokkaido. After thoroughly explaining the possibilities of DENSO agricultural greenhouses, we proceeded to discuss where to construct them, what energy source to use, and so on.”
They agreed to grow snack vegetables (snack-sized tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers), mainly cherry tomatoes, which are in high market demand and relatively high-priced. Yamane says," By realizing year-round cultivation of vegetables that are difficult to grow in the winter in cold regions such as Hokkaido, we hope to contribute to stable business and the creation of employment in winter seasons.
Practicing Smart Agriculture Utilizing Mobility Technology
Tamura, who joined DENSO in 2021, is currently the main person responsible for the operation of the agricultural greenhouse. He works on the device operation in the greenhouse and improving the cultivation efficiency.
On the day of the interview, he gave us a tour of the greenhouse.
In early August, when we conducted the interview, the harvesting of vegetables was just starting. The greenhouse was beginning to bear bright red tomatoes and many yellow and other colorful snack vegetables.
DENSO's Profarm® climate controller is indispensable for controlling temperature and humidity in the greenhouse. Three units were installed in the greenhouse.
DENSO's proprietary climate controller and active ventilation system suppresses uneven temperature and humidity in the greenhouses and automatically adjusts environmental conditions to those conducive to crop growth. In addition, the amount of pesticide application can be reduced because pest infestation is minimized by minimizing the number of areas where they come in from outside the greenhouse and controlling the interior environment through ventilation. In this way, DENSO’s technology can improve the farming method and the farmer’s workstyle, which was previously considered difficult and hard.
However, for the horticulture in cold regions, "high winter heating costs are a major challenge," says Tamura. To solve this problem, an "integrated production management system" was introduced. This system monitors the greenhouse environment and visualizes energy use to reduce costs.
In addition, heating equipment utilizing woody biomass, a local energy resource promoted by Date City, was also installed. By utilizing local resources, they are also encouraging efforts to become carbon neutral. Furthermore, they are aiming to go carbon-negative in the future.
In fact, the "Integrated Production Management System" does not only visualize energy usage but also can share cultivation status as numerical and image data. Specifically, data visualization of the crop field enables quick detection of crop abnormalities in the early stages and quantitative data-based guidance. By utilizing this system, we are also trying to solve the problem of a shortage of farmers. Tamura says, "We will be able to move from “learn by watching” training to instruction and training based on data.”
As I walked around the greenhouse and listened to the stories, I felt my image of farming changing.
By the detailed management and control of the environment with the help of technology, and determining the condition of the crops and the timing based on the data, workers can focus on the necessary tasks and ideas. I think I caught a glimpse of the future of "smart" new agriculture.
Contributing to the sustainable development of the region by nurturing the next generation of farmers
Currently, with the cooperation of a local agricultural corporation, a farming demonstration project is underway in this greenhouse, including the sale of crops. The city plans to start accepting trainees in two years as the "Mareppu Agricultural Training Center" to foster the next generation farmers in Date City. Based on the data obtained from the ongoing farm demonstration, they are trying to create an attractive model case which the trainees would grow sustainably after they graduate from the training center to become independent.
Yamane also shared his desire to improve the community.
Yamane: "While living in the area, I feel that the people of Date are really nice. At the same time, I also feel the community's expectations for this project and would like to contribute as much as possible to creating a community where people can live happily through the promotion of agriculture. I will do my best so that people would say, 'I'm glad DENSO has come here after all.”
Tamura and Kobayashi feel the same way. They say they would like to go through trials and errors to let the community know about DENSO’s initiatives.
Tamura: "To revitalize the community through this initiative, we would like to continue to actively communicate the goals and intentions of DENSO and Date City, including the agricultural demonstration, through conversations with local people, and meet the expectations of the people of Date City.”
How will the practice of cooperation between DENSO and Date City lead to the revitalization of the region and sustainable development of the local economy in the future? Listening to the stories and seeing the greenhouse in person made me look forward to hearing about the next "harvest" even more.
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