BreakThrough Interview

Creating Holidays in Agriculture through the Power of IoTZeRo.agri.


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  • Routrek Networks strives to overcome the challenges of an excessively declining population in agriculture by spreading its next-generation hydroponic cultivation system, “ZeRo.agri”

Agriculture in Japan currently faces the challenge of an excessively declining population in local communities. While farmers are struggling to take weekends off due to the shortage of labor and lack of successors, they must also get through these predicaments by labor-saving and streamlining toward improving profitability. In such circumstances, a drip watering solution called a next-generation hydroponic cultivation system is attracting attention, steadily achieving results so that these challenges can be overcome.

What should be done with agriculture in Japan with not many women marrying farmers?

Being able to take holidays off while working in agriculture—something as obvious as this is an extremely important issue. Shinichi Sasaki, President and CEO of Routrek Networks, states the harsh reality of farming in Japan: “It is difficult for farmers in Japan today to sufficiently take holidays off, due to the shortage of labor and lack of successors. Meanwhile, this is a serious problem for younger people, too, because this could discourage women interested in marrying farmers. Despite these circumstances, farmers have no choice but to strive for improved profitability by labor-saving and streamlining.”

Japan’s farming population has actually dropped by one million people in 10 years, deserted arable land has increased to 424,000 hectares, and the average age of farmers is now 67 years old. In order to find a way out of this situation, Mr. Sasaki launched ZeRo.agri, a solution regarded as a next-generation hydroponic cultivation system.

Water-saving cultivation is the keyword to solving the problems

The world’s population has passed 7 billion people, and it is said that it will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Due to this increase in population, water depletion and food shortage will become even more prominent issues. “Currently, 70% of water used in life is used for irrigation. Furthermore, irrigated farmlands occupy 18% of all farmlands, and given the reality that these farmlands produce 40% of the world’s food, conventional farming methods will require large amounts of water to tackle the problem of food shortage and there will be an obvious limit to it. This is where water-saving cultivation comes in, because by increasing water-saving cultivation, we will surely get closer to solving these problems,” points out Mr. Sasaki. ZeRo.agri uses IoT and a cultivation algorithm jointly developed with Meiji University to automate watering and manuring, which are the processes in cultivation technology that most essentially require experience and gut feeling.

System configuration of ZeRo.agri. Realizes a fully automated manuring management based on information from two sensors

Unlike cutting-edge high-functionality ICT agriculture offered by major manufacturers, ZeRo.agri trims everything other than just the necessary functions, and the sensor, which is the heart of the system, is narrowed down to two types—for amount of insolation, and for soil such as soil moisture content and EC value. By storing the information gathered by these sensors in the cloud, and monitoring and analyzing the information on soil using an original cultivation algorithm, it realizes a fully automated supply of the ideal supplying amount of nutrient medium for the growth of the crops with manure dissolved in water provided through a drip tube. Furthermore, users can check the soil condition on a tablet and easily change settings of the amount of nutrient medium supplied just with their fingertips and, recently, the addition of a nitrogen concentration designation function has made soil environment even more controllable. Just one unit of ZeRo.agri can cover a maximum of 50a and 6 compartments.

Example of tablet screen when setting up nutrient medium supply

Light of hope to new farmers who will grow up watching their father's back

ZeRo.agri has thus been able to achieve various results, such as increasing yield by 30% even for skilled farmers while maintaining the same quality, expanding cultivation size by reducing work time by 90% through the automation of watering and manuring, storing the watering and manuring data of skilled farmers in the cloud so that it can be used to support new farmers, as well as water-saving and manure-reduction by 50% compared to usual cultivation methods through the automation of drip irrigation using IoT and cultivation algorithm.

The target market for ZeRo.agri consists of the growers of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries in pipe houses of 98% facility cultivation area without ICT implementation, and it has been implemented by over 50 customers so far. One example of implementation is by a large-fruited tomato farmer in Yatsushiro city, Kumamoto Prefecture who manages a farm with 40a facility area with two family members and one part-time worker. By implementing ZeRo.agri, the farmer was able to reduce watering and manuring work by 90%, in addition to achieving a 45% reduction in manure, reduction of pesticide spraying to 1/5, and improvement of yield to 18t/10a.

Mr. Sasaki states his ambitions passionately: “We only have one desire. There is an old saying in Japan that children grow up watching their parents' back. We hope to revive a cycle where children can proudly succeed their father’s farming business, supporting it with IoT while improving income and developing the agricultural industry, so that farming can regain its brilliant status in the past as a primary industry.” Routrek Networks has been highly appraised for its corporate efforts to provide dedicated support to farmers, placing in second out of 250 companies, winning the Semi Grand Prix from METI’s IoT Acceleration Lab. Its future goals are to help improve income of farmers, while supporting new workers in farming and the transmission of cultivation technology. It also spares no effort in providing full support to people who want to return to their hometowns and start farming in areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. To that end, it hopes to gain further backing from local governments and the national government to boost its singlehanded efforts.

Mr. Shinichi Sasaki promoting the ability to easily set up the supply amount of nutrient medium with just one's fingertip on a tablet

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ZeRo.agri controls the environment of the underground area that was previously unable to be seen. By combining information from various sensors, ZeRo.agri calculates and automatically delivers the optimal set of irrigation & fertigation amounts each day in accordance with the current crop conditions.

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