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Japan tries robotic farms in tsunami zone

Kyodo / Reuters

The New Year sunrise lights up an area devastated by the March 2011 tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, in this photo taken on Jan. 1, 2012. The tsunami reached three-fourths of the height of the tower seen in the center of the photo.

TOKYO –  When the earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan's northeast coast last March, approximately 60,000 acres of agricultural land was inundated by seawater, resulting in damages to farms costing over $10.2 billion.

Miyagi Prefecture, which was closest to the epicenter of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, was particularly hard hit with over 37,000 acres of its and drenched in salt water and debris from the tsunami.

The clean-up and rejuvenation job is  too big  for humans, especially the aging populace to tend to live and work in agricultural areas, many of whom lost everything in the disaster.

But now, the Japanese government is planning to implement an experimental program that will use robots to do the heavy lifting and unmanned tractors to work fields on land that was swamped by the tsunami.

The agricultural ministry’s six-year plan would take up to 600 acres of land in Miyagi, rent it from owners and conduct test trials of Japan's latest technologies from the nation's all-star roster of companies, including Panasonic, Hitachi, Yanmar and Fujitsu.

The agricultural ministry has already earmarked $9 million for this year's budget and plans to spend about $52 million over the next six years.

In addition to the robotic tools, the project will test some previously existing technologies, such as LED lights that give off ultraviolet rays that can fend off pests in an environmentally friendly manner.

Study groups with the technology companies have already been conducted at the ministry and actual testing and research will begin this year.

The project will encompass four towns in Miyagi – Natori, Iwanuma, Watari and Yamamoto –and focus on people who lost their farming equipment in the tsunami and are unable to restart on their own. The project will be centered on a 172-acre farm plot in Natori.

Another plot of land in Yamamoto will be used to offer new employment for those who gave up their land for the project by creating a farm using desalinated potted soil to grow berries and other produce.

"Our main focus is on the reconstruction and the immediate assistance for those who lost their ability to farm because of the tsunami," said Kazuhiko Shimada, the agricultural ministry spokesperson. 

The project is also aimed at tackling the thorny issue of an aging farm population, with the ministry hoping that the technologies tested can improve efficiency and help graying farmers.

Also, with increasing competition on the world market, the ministry hopes to promote the creation of larger, more competitive farms.

For instance, another test will use cloud-computing to communicate with supermarkets and identify what produce is desired by consumers, so that information can then be shared with farmers.

The first stage of the project will concentrate on desalination and various technological tests will first be conducted at nearby universities and research institutes.

Although government assistance will expire in six years, Shimada hopes that enough momentum will be made that farmers will be able to work directly with the private sector and continue to seek new advances in the nation's agricultural sector.