Inside Fujitsu's cloud-powered farm of the future

Japanese farms are smaller and often less sophisticated than those elsewhere in the world. Can a suite of sensors, services, and -- yes -- cow pedometers from Fujitsu help them compete on a global scale?

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

The average farm in the United States of America is 449 acres. Ignore the smaller farms on the East Coast and look to an agriculture-focused state like Wyoming, and that average footprint balloons to a whopping 3,743 acres -- one-fourth the size of the island of Manhattan. That's a lot of land, enough that farmers can make big investments and expect big payoffs. An expensive tractor will pay for itself by tilling, haying, and managing more acreage. The same goes for less predictable but equally important farm equipment, like computers running accounting software. Modern megafarms in America are often sophisticated, data-driven enterprises employing dozens or hundreds of people.

The average Japanese farm, on the other hand, covers less than five acres. It raises only about $50,000 in revenue annually, which pays helpers and buys machinery, seeds, and other required supplies. At the end of the year, the average Japanese farmer clears just $15,000 of income to support a family, which doesn't leave much for investments in heavy machinery or monolithic software suites to track crop yield or milk production.

Despite its status as a tech-crazed nation, Japanese farms tend to be fairly simple. Farmers generally can't monitor output from one year to the next, and with no data, it's difficult to make smart business decisions.

This, then, is why I'm visiting a farm at the Fujitsu Numazu Plant, a factory that formerly manufactured mainframes but now spits out software and services designed to bring Japanese farmers into the information age. I can't help feeling a little underdressed. Having grown up in Vermont, I know that typical farm visiting dress entails blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and rubber boots. The taller, the better. I sadly packed neither flannel nor waders for my trip to Japan, sneakers and a T-shirt having to make do. My guide, Tomoaki Fukaya, is wearing suit pants, a dress shirt, and dress shoes. He'd surely be wearing a suit jacket and tie as well, were it not for Japan's Cool Biz initiative, which discourages such adornments with the goal of reducing the need for power-hungry air conditioning.

That may seem like attire ill-suited for either fording pastures or exploring barns, and indeed it is, but then this isn't your average farm. This is a special project, something of a testbed for a service called the Akisai Food and Agriculture Cloud. It's a suite of cloud-based software services put together by Fujitsu to help Japanese farmers achieve what every business craves: productivity.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

Fujitsu's Numazu Plant is northwest of a town called Mishima, which is itself about an hour's ride from Tokyo via Shinkansen, whisking through gradually greener and increasingly elevated countryside at 170 mph. An employee shuttle picks up Fujitsu workers at the station and takes them the further 10 kilometers into the mountains, past forests of pagoda and katsura trees and plenty of bamboo, too.

The scenery alone makes the trip worthwhile when the shuttle drops you off 30 minutes later. Ironically, Fujitu built the plant on farmland in 1976, occupying a space of land so dear to farmers that some still work the land between the buildings. The place was also intended to serve as a residential and recreation area for employees, which explains all the scenery. On a clearer day you can see down to the Suruga Bay and the Izu Peninsula, a popular place for the spa-loving Japanese to soak away their troubles in one of the hundreds of natural hot springs.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

Up on the hill, in the Fujitsu offices, things are rather more professional. I'm lead past a secure door into a cramped elevator, and then down a dark, quiet, windowless hallway into a large (for Japan) wood-paneled meeting room. An oval table and a dozen low, black leather chairs take up virtually all the floor space. A small American flag on a small metal flagpole designates my seat for the discussion. Across from me, a Japanese flag marks the seat of Fukaya-san, who is senior manager of the Innovative Business Development Unit, Social Cloud Business Div. The round table, the seats, the flags, the '60s stylings -- I can't help picturing JFK sitting at a table much like this during the Cuban missile crisis.

We're here to talk about farming, though. SaaS-based farming with metrics, that is. Fukaya-san is a friendly man of about average height and build, dark hair beginning to thin. A pair of narrow, wire-framed reading glasses spend more time pushed up on his head than on his face. A pen hangs, unprotected, in the chest pocket of his striped shirt as he tells me about the differences in Japanese and American farming.

Fujitsu Akisai
The Akisai interface Fujitsu

While an assistant serves us delicate glasses of iced green tea, Fukaya-san opens up his (Fujitsu) laptop, connects it to a projector, and logs into the Akisai service. I'm initially struck by how simple it is, and I can't help wondering whether I've made a horrible mistake coming all this way into the country to see a demonstration of a service that has all the visual sophistication and charm of the Northwind Traders demo Web app that shipped with Microsoft Access 2000.

But, as Solo said, she's got it where it counts. Fukaya-san drills deeper and deeper into the service. He shows how farmers can track the hours worked and output produced by their helpers. He shows how to define pastures on Google Maps and then chart their contents and yield. He pulls up bar graphs showing average worker task duration and line charts of historic weather conditions. And, as a final act, a real-time feed of data streaming from the Akisai test farm, a combination of greenhouses and pastures that happens to be a kilometer away. It could have just as easily been on another continent.

The Web form displays current temperatures both inside and out the greenhouses, as well as humidity, wind speed, and sun intensity. Soil moisture content is tracked along with rainfall amounts and, if that weren't enough, with a few clicks, Fukaya-san is able to modulate the temperature and humidity within the greenhouse by remotely controlling fans, vents, and heaters. He can even pull up a live feed of video from multiple cameras in the fields, making it easy to find out which unit of fauna is nibbling on which bit of flora.

Fujitsu Akisai
Fujitsu

Ranchers aren't left out of the party, either. When paired with a series of cow pedometers (yes, pedometers for cows), Akisai can generate reports on a given heifer's activity. An active cow is a more fertile cow, and by tracking activity you can determine the perfect time for breeding. Fujitsu numbers show this tracking has increased fertilization success by more than 30 percent. On the flip side, if a given cow is particularly inactive, it may be time to call the vet. I'm left wondering whether FitBit is aware of this relatively untapped market.

Presentation over, Fukaya-san takes me away from the wood paneling and out into a day that is starting to clear, exposing more of the view down into the bay. The Akisai installation on the factory grounds is down a narrow road, up a little hill past a drainage pond to a clearing. Two small, white greenhouses sit on the far side of a field that covers little more than an acre.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

Small plots containing various bits of vegetation are scattered about. I can smell some radishes somewhere, but the main vegetables of interest here on the outside are eggplants, cabbage, and sweet potatoes. A few bushes of red and green chili peppers add some color to the surroundings. Some of the vegetation looks a little worse for wear, leaves perforated by pests. Fukaya-san apologizes for their appearance, proudly stating that no pesticides are used at this Akisai farm. Not to worry, I say. These days Americans pay extra for distressed vegetables at farmers markets.

Plants grown on the inside of the greenhouses are, predictably, prettier looking. At another location, Fujitsu has repurposed a clean room, previously used for semiconductor fab work, to grow low-potassium lettuce suitable for people suffering from kidney afflictions. Fujitsu indicates that store-bought lettuce has a potassium content of up to 490mg per 100g. The special Fujitsu lettuce contains just 69mg. (Note that according to the USDA, iceberg lettuce has potassium content of 194mg.) The clean room is a perfect environment for it, with an accurately modulated climate and zero foreign contaminates.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

At this facility, however, the Akisai farm is growing something Fujitsu calls senjusai. We step inside to see the proceedings, kicking off our shoes and squeezing into slippers never intended for American feet. The leafy red senjusai plants sit on tables, plugged into holes in polystyrine sheets that float over a trickle of nutrient-rich water. Black and white 2D indicators, like simple QR codes, mark the tables.

Those are far from the only hints that this isn't a typical greenhouse. The back wall is lined with beige boxes containing electrical and communications equipment. Sensors monitor what's going on within the greenhouses, while outside two devices aggregate information about their nearby fields, each with its own streaming camera. Both connect to a local wireless network and tethered to a power line, but could just as easily be phoning home over a cellular connection and relying on solar power.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

This sort of technology does not come cheap. A simple unit feeding basic data back to the service, with a fixed camera, starts at $2,000. The advanced units, with more inputs and cameras that can be remotely controlled, are closer to $10,000. Thankfully this hardware is largely standardized in Japan, relying on interfaces put forth by the Ubiquitous Environment Control System Consortium (UECS). So, you're not on the hook to buy proprietary Fujitsu devices. However, the company certainly hopes you'll use the Akisai service to aggregate all the data coming from those sensors. That, too, will cost you, starting at 6,000 JPY per user per month (about $60).

Thinking back to the average farmer clearing just $15,000 a year, it all sounds particularly expensive. Prohibitively so. This, then, is why Fujitsu has been of late courting not farmers but government officials. In fact, the same day as my visit, local representatives were coming to get their own tour. Fujitsu's hope is that these municipal bodies will decide that the service and related hardware is worth the investment, either renting or loaning it out to local farmers with the goal of fostering local agriculture. With a service whose goal is to make already tight margins slightly more comfortable, that certainly seems like the most practical financial solution. For the farmers, at least.

Fujitsu Akisai
Tim Stevens/CNET

Tour over, Fukaya-san takes me back to the wood-paneled confines of the board room for final discussions and something of a treat: glasses of juice from the senjusai plants grown in the smart greenhouse. The crimson extract is said to make you live longer, and I'm not about to pass up a promise like that. Served cold and heavily spiced, the juice is a little like a particularly bitter glass of mulled cider over ice. I imagine this is how a red potion in The Legend of Zelda would taste.

Whether the juice adds years to my life remains to be seen, as does Akisai's ability to help farmers increase the longevity of their businesses. After a quick glimpse into what can be done, it's hard to imagine anyone in agriculture not wanting the kind of easy, direct access to data that a service like this can pull together. The only question is whether those who need this the most can afford it. As we've seen in nearly every other industry, it may soon be a question of whether they can afford not to.

About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

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