Business

This family-owned Japanese tea farm has been around for more than 70 years. Here’s how it’s using technology to increase global exports.

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Horiguchi Seicha
Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha is home to one of Japan’s premier tea plantations, measuring around 667 acres.

  • Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha, one of Japan’s largest tea factories, is using new technology to grow high-quality crops without pesticides and other chemicals.
  • In order to expand the demand for Japanese tea, it’s also focusing on growing its footprint overseas.
  • Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha uses an ingenious robot to improve productivity and cultivation methods that do not rely on agricultural chemicals.

Most farmers would be concerned to see tiny gray spots on their crops. But that’s not the case at Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha in Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu, home to one of Japan’s largest tea factories and green tea manufacturers. The dusting of harmless ash is an occasional gift from neighboring Sakurajima, an active volcano and the symbol of Kagoshima prefecture.

Sakurajima’s ash helps produce the mineral-rich soils that make this area such a prime spot for growing tea, while any specks falling on the crops are simply washed away during processing.

The region’s coastal location and sub-tropical climate also support healthy plant growth – Kagoshima is one of the warmest regions in Japan.

Horiguchi Daisuke, vice president and representative director of Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha, comes from a long line of tea farmers; his grandfather first began cultivating tea plants shortly after WWII. Today the farm produces a wide range of teas – from oolong to black and green varieties, including matcha, and its award-winning sencha.

But while the volcano doesn’t worry the tea farmers, insect pests are a big concern.

“Each export market has different regulations for the types of pesticides and fertilizers that can be used in agricultural production,” Horiguchi says. “Ensuring we can sell our tea to any country involves finding cultivation methods that do not rely on chemicals, yet still allow us to remain competitive and produce high-quality output.”

Horiguchi Seicha 2
Their consumers hold tea in high regard as a symbol of Japanese culture.

The right solution

As a result, Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha has steadily moved toward an environmentally sensitive approach known as integrated pest management (IPM). Adopting this program has seen the family-owned business think outside the box and experiment with radical new farming methods.

Since IPM farming requires a lot of skilled labor, Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha has been challenging itself to combine IPM farming with “smart agriculture” that utilizes robotics and information and communication technology (ICT).

In Japan, “smart agriculture” is now being promoted to realize labor-saving, precision and high-quality production, and Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha  is one of the first farmers to adopt it.

Their first IPM innovation traces back to the previous generation of Horiguchi Daisuke. Noticing that insects disappeared after a typhoon, he developed a machine called the “Hurricane King,” which blows wind and water at high pressure through the tea plants, removing any harmful bugs in the process.

“It went through many evolutions, but now this machine is being used very successfully,” Horiguchi says.

This is not all. The spirit of challenge of the previous generation did not stop there. Day after day, he pursued the improvement of work efficiency and the production of safe and secure tea, and also came up with new ideas. “Recently, we’ve been trialing a prototype unmanned ‘robot’ plucking machine. We’ve also automated the task of covering the tea fields with “baron screens” – massive black sheets designed to protect the leaves against wind and strong sunlight – with the introduction of a machine that can handle the deployment.”

This method, which is a combination of “smart agriculture” and “IPM farming,” is saving labor in farming and helping to solve the problem of labor shortage. In addition, they are able to cultivate tea in a way that is close to the ecosystem and does not rely solely on chemical pesticides, which is necessary for safe and secure tea production. Furthermore, by providing the know-how of this farming method to contract farmers, they are able to produce high quality tea that is unique from other companies, and are working to revitalize the tea industry in the entire region.

Horiguchi Seicha 3
Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha uses the robot “Hurricane King” that removes pests with high water pressure and strong wind.

Innovation across the board

That type of innovative thinking is being put to good use on the business side of the company too, with new tea products developed to suit consumer tastes overseas. Export markets have grown in importance for Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha in recent years. While tea remains a vital part of national culture and heritage in Japan, consumption patterns are definitely changing.

“Domestic demand for tea has declined over the last decade,” Horiguchi says. “On the plus side, however, overseas consumers hold our tea in high regard as a symbol of Japanese culture and we are seeing a steady increase in international sales – especially for matcha, which is seen as delicious. We mainly export matcha directly to the United States, France and Germany.”

Given this healthy demand, Kagoshima Horiguchi Seicha is now seeking to promote its products more aggressively overseas and identify new expansion opportunities. The company sees advanced, chemical-free cultivation as key to growth and is thus considering taking advantage of cutting-edge technology such as wireless sensors connected to 5G to monitor field conditions or guide self-driving machines.

“I expect that smart agriculture in Japan, which we’ve been working on developing in recent years, will keep expanding in the future,” Horiguchi says. “I have high expectations, especially when it comes to the introduction of 5G and ways we can take advantage of that. In that respect, I think the future holds a lot in store for us,”.

A bold, pioneering approach comes easily to this family-owned business, and Horiguchi believes this willingness to try new ideas has ensured its survival over the years. He says, “Both my grandfather, when he was in charge, and even my father’s generation always took it upon themselves to innovate the farming method and that attitude is ingrained in our corporate culture.”

Find out more about how Japan is revitalizing its regional economies by agriculture reform.

This post was created by Insider Studios with the Government of Japan. 

Read the original article on Business Insider

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