The previous article featured an interview of Mr. Sakaiya, Senior Manager at Aomori Prefecture Industrial Technology Research Center focusing on "what is remote sensing technology-driven rice growing." A rice farmer, JA, and the prefectural office who engages in growing "Seitenno Hekireki," a rice that leverages remote sensing technology were interviewed in this article.
Mr. Ryuhei Mikami, First-line Manager, Rice Growing Promotion Group, Aomori Prefecture, Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishery, Department of Agricultural Production, Mr. Hiroyuki Yamaguchi, Deputy Researcher、Onoe Kikan Branch, JA Tsugaru Mirai, and Mr. Norio Kudoh, Aomori Prefecture Agricultural Business Advisor are the three.
Remote sensing technology-driven rice growing
Remote sensing technology-driven rice growing is monitoring the growth status of rice stalks using satellite observation and ground measured data to harvest the rice at the optimal timing for its flavor. In Aomori prefecture, a trial is underway wherein JA teaches rice farmers the best fertilizer amount and harvest timing based on the satellite data-driven agricultural map developed by Aomori Prefecture Industrial Technology Research Center.
Kudoh: We rice farmers were relying on our experience saying, "The rice stalk is this yellow, it is about time to harvest." Remote sensing technology quantifies the stalk color for visualization. Our effort is all focused on "how to grow high-quality flavorful rice" and our rice is well regarded by consumers.
The "Oishisa Catch Rice" project to determine the flavor of "Tsugaru Roman," Aomori's top brand-name rice grown in the Tsugaru area, using satellite technology was the start of rice farming using remote sensing technology in Aomori prefecture. "Oishisa Catch Rice" was popular in the market thanks to its good flavor and stringent quality control. It, however, did not earn "Special A grade," which had been a dream of Aomori rice farmers.
Mikami: We were trying to earn "Special A" with "Tsugaru Roman" but we were unsuccessful, and we came to a conclusion that we needed a new variety. It was "Seitenno Hekireki [Out of the Blue]" born in the 26th year of Heisei . The name, "Seitenno Hekireki" was selected from more than ten thousand entries from a public contest. The name was announced in a press event hosted by the governor of Aomori, Mr. Shingo Mimura himself. The prefectural government was committed to the project.
Kudoh: Agriculture Research Institute requested me for a trial cultivation. I was moved when I ate it for the first time. I felt as if I had been struck by a lightning, just as its name "Seitenno Hekireki" means. It was that delicious.
How "Seitenno Hekireki" is grown
It was determined from the beginning that remote sensing technology would be applied to growing "Seitenno Hekireki" as Aomori had been accumulating experience and know-how in the "Oishisa Catch Rice" project. Only certified farmers can grow "Seitenno Hekireki." Registered farmers can buy seeds only necessary and sufficient for their claimed rice paddy size. Production processes are monitored and a criteria of grades 1 and 2 are strictly defined for final product: Protein content rate has to be 6.4% or less when normalized to 15% water content for unpolished rice (7.5% or less for dry brown rice. The higher the protein content rate is, the less flavorful the rice will be.)
Because of these criteria, remote sensing technology, which allowed management of individual rice paddies, was the best solution for them.
For example, protein content of rice varied from paddy to paddy. But rice with high protein content and low protein content was all mixed regardless of paddies when the farmer shipped his harvest.
"Seitenno Hekireki" has its protein content measured for each shipping lot; only lots that meet the standard can be shipped as the brand-name rice. The "protein map" developed with remote sensing data shows which paddy generate protein-rich rice. "Seitenno Hekireki" farmers and their rice paddies are plotted in a map.
Other prefectures are using remote sensing technology for rice farming but Aomori is leading in the extent of its use in rice growing management. In that sense, "Seitenno Hekireki" is at the highest level in Japan and is produced under thorough quality control.
Kudoh: You may not be able to think of any Aomori rice. Many consumers think of Aomori as only for apple production. I wanted to practice rice growing where I can communicate with consumers why Aomori rice is high quality, by explaining, "This is how Aomori farmers are growing their rice," JA is providing clear guidance, "This is the policy of the prefectural government," and farming records are well-maintained.
Remote sensing-driven rice farming can help less experienced young farmers and farmers-to-be produce high-quality rice more easily. This is another benefit of remote sensing technology. I have been engaging in rice farming for about 40 years and have empirical knowledge what you need to do to produce flavorful rice at a particular paddy. With remote sensing data, a JA instructor can tell you with numbers, "You can harvest this paddy tomorrow", "You should use this amount of fertilizer next year". I was impressed with data-driven agriculture.
Rice cannot be sold under the "Seitenno Hekireki" brand unless it meets the standard including aforementioned protein content. The production per 10a is capped to enhance the flavor. The rice farmer will lose money if his rice is sold at the same price as other rice. It is a dilemma for rice farmers. But they are dedicated to produce high-quality rice and to make [Seitenno Hekireki] the brand representing Aomori prefecture.
Their effort was fruitful; "Seitenno Hekireki" is attracting the attention of rice distributors and rice maestros.
A project "Special Rice" that cut pesticide use in half and reduced chemical fertilizer has started to capture this tail wind, but it is not easy to grow this special low-pesticide, low-fertilizer rice.
Yamaguchi: Remote sensing technology is effective for this new project. It quantifies the soil's organic matter content (fertility level) and rice protein content. Data tells us, "This soil will not produce flavorful rice" and how to improve the quality. It helps JA's guidance. Data-driven instruction leads to a better understanding of paddy conditions by rice farmers. It is very helpful.
Rice consumption in Japan has been declining at the pace of 1kg/person/year. Opportunities to cook rice at home with a rice cooker are substantially reduced, it is said. "If you eat less rice, I want you to eat high-quality rice when you eat it," says Mr. Kudoh.
Kudoh: In order to deliver truly high-quality rice, rice farmers, JA, and the prefectural government as a triad are doing researches. The close partnership is a driver of the present rice farming using remote sensing technology.
Rice farming independent of experience and intuit
Aomori's remote sensing technology-driven rice farming has not reached its goal yet. They are looking beyond the horizon in their collaborative research.
Yamaguchi: I hope we would like to be able to monitor the growth of rice. Rice stalk is formed from early to mid July when we need to apply fertilizer for stalk growth. The level and pace of stalk growth determines the amount of fertilizer, but it is difficult to determine the right amount. Satellite data takes 1 to 2 weeks for data analysis and we cannot wait that long. We will miss the fertilization window. Currently, we are using a traditional method of measuring the height of rice and size of the stem. If we can use satellite data near real time, we should be able to provide better guidance.
Further independence from experience and intuition. Remote sensing-driven rice farming is still evolving.
I had an opportunity to taste "Seitenno Hekireki" after this interview. Clean and fine flavor, and crisp texture; I thought it was a wonderful rice that goes well with delicately flavored Japanese dishes. I could not help asking for the second bowl. This tasty rice was produced by the team who was committed to satellite data-driven farming.