New-Age farming

NEXT time you look for a Panasonic, don't just head to the electrical department. You might also want to check out the pre-made salads in the fresh vegetables section of the supermarket. It currently offers three varieties in the Panasonic Veggie Life salad range: the Antioxidant Mix, the Nourish Mix and the Vibrant Mix.

In the future, could we also get to buy strawberries from Sharp, or lettuce from Toshiba and Fujitsu if the trend in Japan makes its way here?

For now, Panasonic is the poster boy of the mini agricultural revolution that started in Japan a few years ago - when the country's electronic giants switched to hi-tech, clean-room farming in their plants that used to make computer chips and plasma TVs. This was brought about because of the ailing electronics sector now dominated by Korea, combined with the problem of ageing farmers in Japan.

So far, only Panasonic has replicated this hi-tech agricultural cultivation in Singapore. Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific (Panasonic Singapore) at Tuas converted one of its machine fabrication and training rooms to become an agricultural plant in 2013.

The factory solutions company first set up a pilot 248 sq m area and in May this year expanded it about four times the size to 1,154 sq m.

Using Japanese prototypes

What the Singapore facility does is to use prototypes developed by its parent company in Japan. High on the planting list are 38 kinds of ready-to-eat vegetables, mainly the type used for salads, explains Alfred Tham, the manager of Panasonic's Agricultural Business Unit.

This includes white and red radish, baby spinach, basil, chard, a variety of lettuces, mizuno, capsicum or paprika, and the oba leaf used in Japanese cuisine.

The vegetables are grown in small pots of soil, and placed in racks where they get "sunlight" provided by LED lighting. The temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels are controlled, and plants are grown pesticide-free while they are monitored at every step.

This is the first indoor plant facility that's certified by Singapore's Agricultural and Veterinary Authority (AVA), says Mr Tham proudly.

For now, the watering and harvesting is done manually, but the facility is moving towards automated watering. "Half of the R&D is done by our parent company in Osaka, while we do the other half here," says Mr Tham.

Instead of bringing in the automated watering system, for example, Singapore is working with local vendors to get this made locally. "That way, we also build up our own capability. And once we can have automated watering, we can cut down our reliance on manpower by 67 per cent," he notes.

Mr Tham used to oversee logistics but was transferred to the agriculture business unit two years ago. The staff from R&D were pulled into the project as they are studying ways to see if they can further reduce the growing time for the vegetables.

Already, under LED lighting which uses only the blue and red rays which are needed by photosynthesis, the plants take about half the time needed to be harvested, when compared to conventional farming.

"So we can grow lettuce in 30 to 35 days, because the light is constant, and we also expose the vegetables for a slightly longer period of time than just eight to nine hours of natural sunlight," explains Mr Tham.

UV rays and heat are also completely absent, because they aren't needed in the growing process, he adds.

After the vegetables are harvested, they are cleaned and packed in the plant and distributed. Since last year, Panasonic has delivered its produce directly to hotels, restaurants and cafes such as Resorts World Sentosa, Les Amis Restaurant and Ootoya Japanese Restaurant. But with the expanded facility, it can now supply to the retail market.

The target is 18,000 tonnes of vegetables a year, which amounts to 500 to 600 bowls of salads a day. Meanwhile, local R&D is also being done to grow vegetables hydroponically.

With the Japanese government encouraging its electronic firms to go into advanced agriculture in the past few years, the number of plants using hi-tech methods has quadrupled to more than 380, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal says Toshiba aims to grow three million heads of lettuce and annual sales are estimated at US$2.9 million (S$4.1 million) by fiscal 2015. It is reported to have plans to expand the business to other parts of Asia and the Middle East where climate volatility and poor water quality make it hard to produce vegetables.

Fujitsu has a production of 3,500 heads of lettuce a day, but intends to produce about US$4 million worth by the 2016 fiscal year, up from a goal of US$1.5 million this year.

In Singapore, Panasonic's projected output of 81 tonnes is on target to contribute 5 per cent to Singapore's local production by FY2016.

Does it matter that Mr Tham and his team aren't trained in agriculture though? The logistics man explains that it's really a matter of systems and processes. "We get training in Japan, and then we implement it here.

"The know-how is there already, and what the company has done is to put the knowledge of growing vegetables onto paper and making it standard procedure - so it's no longer the traditional way where sons learn from their fathers," he notes.

The difficult part in Singapore was, in fact, more organisational as this move required Panasonic to apply for change of land use, apply for all the necessary licensing and put auditing processes in place, says Mr Tham.

Veronica Lee, senior manager for Panasonic's Corporate Planning Department, says that the company's core business is still in factory solutions and automation.

Hideki Baba, Panasonic Singapore's managing director, notes that in Singapore, land scarcity can prove challenging so this indoor vegetable farm is to combine Panasonic's technological and manufacturing expertise to contribute to Singapore's food self-sufficiency level and consistently cultivate top-quality crops via a sustainable agriculture system.

But, as Panasonic builds its own agricultural automated systems, it could very well offer it as a solution for future clients, as Ms Lee points out.

uihoon@sph.com.sg

Panasonic Veggie Life Salad Mixes are available for S$6.90 each at the following supermarket chains: Emporium Shokuhin, Isetan Scotts supermarket, Isetan Westgate supermarket and MEIDI-YA. By the end of this month, they will also be available at Big Box Hypermart and selected FairPrice supermarkets


This article was first published on November 14, 2015.
Get The Business Times for more stories.