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Equipping Japanese rice farmers for the future?

Rice is central to Japanese culture and tradition
Rice is central to Japanese culture and tradition

If you live in Japan long enough, you begin to tell the seasons by the rice. Cultivated for over 2000 years and at one time used as currency, rice is Japan's most important crop and remains central to Japanese culture and tradition. Rice is grown throughout the country and is planted each year by over two million farms, although rice fields tend to be small and production is considered a part-time occupation by most farmers.

However, with average farm size increasing and the number of farmers falling, researchers at the Furukawa Agricultural Research Station in Miyagi Prefecture are working to improve efficiency of rice production in Japan. Alongside their rice breeding projects, to enhance cold and blast resistance and produce improved rice varieties, Furukawa's researchers have turned their attentions to improved mechanisation.

Transplanting tradition for mechanisation

For centuries, labour requirements for agriculture in Japan have been very high, leading to outputs per unit land that rank amongst the highest in the world. The work has been back-breaking, with farmers bending over to plant seeds, transplant seedlings, weed and finally harvest the stalks. Mechanisation, particularly for harvesting, has been introduced in recent decades but, introducing mechanisation for all stages of production - from transplanting to harvest - would help further improve efficiency, say the Furukawa researchers.

The average farm size in Japan is just 1.8 hectares, so many would argue that the Global Positioning System (GPS) guided rice transplanter prototype developed at Furukawa, will be unaffordable for most Japanese farmers. Once commercially available, it is estimated that the machine will cost around 6m Yen (over US $50,000).

The transplanting machine is believed to be the first of its kind, states Yoshisada Nagasaka of the Furukawa centre. The machine, which is unlikely to be on the market for at least five years, he says, would significantly reduce the labour requirement for transplanting rice seedlings.

Sophisticated technology

Through the use of technologies including GPS, the machine can be set up with a supply of seedlings and left to transplant a field without any further labour input. An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) calculates direction and incline and before transplanting, the onboard computer plots the four corners of the field and its travel path. Once in action, the computer keeps the machine on course working at the required speed. Sensors detect when the transplanter reaches the field edge so that it stops planting, lifts the equipment and turns to start its next pass. Providing there is a sufficient supply of seedlings, no human intervention is required.

The rice planting machine could help make Japanese farms more efficient
The rice planting machine could help make Japanese farms more efficient

But computerised technology is not the only advantage of this state-of-the-art machine. A system of 'long-mat' hydroponic seedlings is used providing a lightweight alternative to the conventional system of growing seedlings in trays with soil, explains centre researcher Hitoshi Ogiwara.

The long-mat seedlings were also developed at the Furukawa laboratories. Seeds are sown on non-woven cotton cloth which is spread into long nursery trays and watered. The seedlings are ready for planting within two weeks, when the mats can be rolled up ready for use.

The rolls of seedlings are loaded onto the back of the transplanting machine, which systematically unrolls them and plucks and plants the seedlings from the fabric with its six mechanical 'fingers'.

Saving on time and toil

There are two major benefits to this system explains Ogiwara, "One is the labour saving because of its light weight." One roll of seedlings weighing 12kg is used in comparison to ten conventional seedling boxes weighing up to 70kg, he added. One hectare's worth of seedlings would therefore weigh 1.4 tonnes with the conventional system, but only 240kg of long-mat seedlings.

"The second is time saving," he continues. "It takes about three hours to finish one hectare's rice planting with long-mat seedlings. The conventional system would take much longer because of the time needed to collect the heavy boxes."

Whether the high tech GPS guided transplanting machine is commercially viable is yet to be seen. However, the machine's 'long-mat' hydroponic seedling system may be more affordable, particularly for smaller farmers as the long-mat system may be used with other transplanting machines. For example, a six-row rice transplanting machine modified to work with the long-mat system could transplant 0.3 ha of rice without additional supplies of seedlings.

Transplanting can be converted into a one-man job and improve work efficiency, says Ogiwara, adding, "Around 40 farms in the local area are already using and benefiting from it."

Date published: November 2007


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hello I am rice farmer in iran I use japanese rice machine... (posted by: mehdisalimian)


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