Japanese technology firms are applying their expertise in energy-saving technologies to help farmers cope with shifting weather patterns, an onslaught of cheaper imports and a shrinking workforce. While indoor farming has taken off in the United States and Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, those systems are designed more for a colder climate and are only equipped with heating, rather than cooling systems. In Japan, rising electricity costs mean that energy-intensive methods, such as blasting out air-conditioning, aren’t a cost-effective solution. The Japanese model deals with high temperatures and humidity more appropriate for Asian countries.
Automated greenhouses and sensor-controlled fields ensure constant conditions to produce high-quality vegetables and fruits all year-round.This technology has been applied to strawberries as well and is now being brought to India by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) through NEC Corporation.
JICA is facilitating expansion of IT-controlled strawberry cultivation in Pune district. IT-based sensors are used for monitoring pH, temperature and moisture during cultivation; cloud-based storage helps tracking data on progress of cultivation; and computer with internet connectivity used for communication with cultivation experts in Japan when required.
The strawberries are grown in a greenhouse on coco peat, on a raised platform instead of on soil. Coco peat is a coir fiber by-product abundantly available in India, and it minimises use of pesticides and risk of disease or pests. The greenhouse has customized air-coolers to maintain temperature, a retractable curtain with mosquito net for use at night and in winters to maintain temperature without air-coolers and an RO system to maintain pH in irrigation water.
The main challenge in cultivating strawberries is temperature control. By means of a special cooling system, the temperature in the greenhouse is never allowed to exceed 30 degrees Celsius.
The saplings, planted in August, yield fruits three months later and the harvest season lasts till February. Japanese strawberries are sweeter than the local variety and fetch a much higher price at Rs 500 per kg.
Hiroki Iwasa, a Japanese IT engineer, came up with the idea to apply information technology to soilless culture of strawberries after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed most farms at Yamamoto Cho in Japan. Iwasa is the chief executive officer of General Reconstruction Association (GRA) which helps reconstruct tsunami-stricken areas in Japan.
GRA helped grow the first strawberry saplings in India at the College of Agriculture, Pune, in 2012 on a test-basis.
The first strawberry saplings from Japan were introduced in India by GRA, with support from NEC Corporation and an NGO, the Institute of Cultural Affairs, to provide livelihood opportunities for rural women. The strawberries were test grown at the College of Agriculture in 2012. Following successful harvesting of the test crop and pollination for local generation of such plants, a 1,000-square-meter greenhouse was set-up in Pune district. The first crop from the greenhouse has generated repeat orders from hotels and local markets for such strawberries. JICA has provided a grant of 50 million Yen (approx. Rs 2.63 crore) to scale-up the project over two years and propagate the cultivation practice among local farmers for the cultivation to be carried-out into the future without Japanese assistance.
Shankar Jadhav, executive director of Institute of Cultural Affairs says the first harvest has been successful. In a half-acre greenhouse, which was set up for the project at Talegaon Dabhade, about 15,000 Japanese strawberry plants have been cultivated. The plants yielded more than 22,000 kg strawberries last season. This August, 45,000 plants will be cultivated.
“At present, the yield is around 300g per plant. Profits will start coming when the yield touches 500g per plant which is being attempted by growing plants in a three-tier system so that the harvest can be tripled. Next year, we hope to introduce the cultivation techniques to local farmers, he said, adding that while there have been several queries, a farmer from Hyderabad has shown interest in the project which will soon replicated on his land at Hyderabad.
“Costs are high at Rs 70 lakh per hectare. However, if a group of farmers could set up a greenhouse and if the government can provide subsidy to the farmers, it could be feasible. We are also in the process of inviting some investors to provide the capital while farmers provide the land,” he explained.