Faced with a shortage of workers, more and more farmers are turning to the automation and mechanization of agricultural labor such as plowing and harvesting.
This has been fueled by the lower availability of foreign workers and workers who are raising young children, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Agricultural, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry is supporting automation and mechanization, believing it will lead to stable, sustainable agricultural production.
In June, Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima in Fukushima Prefecture purchased an automated harvesting machine for cabbages. One employee of the agricultural producer operates the machine to pick the cabbages, while another employee seated at the rear of the machine puts each one into a container. The machine makes it possible to harvest three tons of cabbages in about two hours, about half the time it used to take.
The farm decided to buy the machine after its part-time employees with children could not work as much as before because schools were closed to help contain the virus outbreak.
Through mechanization, we would like to improve the sustainability of our management and employment, not simply make up for the shortage of staff,â€ said Kunio Takita, an executive of the corporation.
JA Makubetsucho, the Japan Agricultural Cooperative`s regional office in Makubetsu, Hokkaido, is planning to introduce drones to spray pesticides on its members’ farmlands. November is the time for harvesting nagaimo Chinese yams and spraying pesticides on wheat. The JA office expects that the manpower required for both jobs can be reduced by about 60% using the drones, three of which can be operated simultaneously.
Behind these moves is a serious shortage of farmworkers. Foreign technical interns from China, Vietnam and other countries were expected to provide a young workforce in Japan. The number of interns working in agriculture doubled in five years, reaching 35,000 in 2019.
Due to the pandemic, however, many interns became unable to travel to Japan. About 2,000 had been scheduled to work in the agricultural sector in Japan by mid-June. Because demand for tourism and food services has dwindled considerably, there have been attempts to tap that redundant workforce to work in farming, but such moves are not widespread.
The ministry appropriated Â¥1 billion in the first supplementary budget for fiscal 2020 as related costs to support farming households suffering from a shortage of workers. Farmers will be able to use this money to train workers and as a subsidy for buying farming machines. In June, the ministry selected 24 groups to receive the budget allocation, including Yoshinoya Farm Fukushima and JA Makubetsucho.
It is not unusual for self-driving tractors and automated harvesting machines to cost more than Â¥10 million. Farming households, many of them graying, used to be hesitant about investing in such equipment. But the ministry now believes the introduction of machinery will be quickened by the subsidies.
â€œThere were demands and high expectations for those machines, but the overall trend was that many farmers were concerned about the cost and took a wait-and-see attitude. The tide changed significantly with the coronavirus outbreak. It may be a big turning point,â€ said Yasufumi Miwa of the Japan Research Institute, Ltd.Speech