A farmer examines a tomato seedling at a factory built by Saizeria Co. in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai, on Thursday.
Moves to build indoor “vegetable factories” are growing in disaster-hit areas as a measure to revive local agriculture businesses.
In many coastal areas damaged by seawater in the March 11 tsunami, the topsoil has been stripped away in the course of removing disaster debris. The factories, using hydroponic techniques, would enable farmers to cultivate produce without soil.
This has also drawn attention in nuclear crisis-stricken Fukushima Prefecture as a method to produce vegetables in enclosed facilities with an eye toward preventing radiation contamination.
In Sendai, Butai Farm Co., a company growing rice and vegetables on the Sendai Plain and other locations, plans to build an about 20-hectare vegetable factory, the nation’s largest. About 30 hectares of the company’s farmland were flooded by the tsunami, resulting in losses of more than 200 million yen. Faced with this, Butai Farm President Nobuo Hariu, 50, formed a study group with a major food company and other entities in December to launch the new agriculture initiative.
Hariu said the planned factory could produce more than 100 times the amount of rice as traditional methods in the same area. According to the study group, costs to build the factory would total more than 5 billion yen, but the group has concluded the initiative would be profitable as it can skip work to desalinate soil and make it easier to block radiation.
The group also plans to build facilities to monitor radiation and generate solar power near the factory. The overall area of the compound is expected to be 50 hectares. It plans to start production from next fiscal year after leasing farmland from those affected by the disaster.
“This is a good opportunity to change conventional agriculture,” Hariu said. “I’d like to pave the way to the future for the disaster-hit areas and change the current image of agriculture.”
He is planning to hire about 500 people, including young farmers, for the project.
Major restaurant chain Saizeria Co. also built a vegetable factory and has started growing tomatoes in a 1.2-hectare facility in Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai, last month. According to Saizeria, the factory’s productivity is three times more than that of outdoor farming. It has employed 11 local farmers aged 21 to 42 as trainees.
Meanwhile, the city of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, part of which has been designated as a no-entry zone since the nuclear crisis broke out, plans to allocate about 120 million yen in its first draft budget for fiscal 2012 to build a similar factory, where not only vegetables but also flowers, fruit and other farm produce can be grown. The city aims to turn around its agriculture sector, which currently centers on rice production, and create a platform to grow vegetables in winter. It said it also wants to use produce from the factory for school lunches.
The city government plans to take advantage of the central government’s subsidies for disaster reconstruction to build the factory in the tsunami-hit coastal area in the city. To prevent soil from being contaminated with radiation, produce will be cultivated in fully enclosed, sterile conditions.
The city plans to complete construction of the plant’s first 300-square-meter facility as early as July and publicly seek participants in the initiative such as farming companies. It aims to build more facilities and expand the compound to about 10 hectares within about five years.
Yukinobu Sato, 57, representative of a farming corporation in the city that saw 80 percent of its 45-hectare farmland damaged by the tsunami, has high hopes for the municipality’s move.
“As we’ve also suffered from harmful rumors [due to the nuclear crisis], we’ve found it difficult to get through the current situation with conventional agriculture,” Sato said. “Cultivation under fully closed, antiseptic conditions has potential. I want to consider participating in the initiative.”