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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Seeds of employment

Through its high-tech farm in the heart of Tokyo, a staffing agency aims to foster city-dwellers' interest in agriculture as a career


Staff writer

There, in the heart of the concrete jungle that is Tokyo's Otemachi financial district, in the second-floor basement abyss of a 27-story building, is nothing less than . . . a farm.

News photo
Tomatoes flourish at Pasona O2.

But, as it's neither a food company's test bed for cutting-edge agritechnology, nor a research institute's lab for biotechnology experiments, what exactly is going on here?

"We see this space as a showroom of farming in the midst of a metropolis," said Keisuke Nemoto, manager of the PR and planning division of Pasona Inc., a staffing agency which opened the underground farm in February.

"We do not aim to grow produce here to put on the market," he said. "We created this place so that people could know more about farming, and to increase the number of 'fans of farming,' so that -- eventually -- we can promote job opportunities in that area."

News photo
Rice at Pasona O2

The farm gate of Pasona O2 as this rural enclave in downtown Tokyo is known, is through just one elevator in a corner of the first floor of the building. That is, Nemoto explained, for security reasons -- because the second-floor basement used to be where a bank had its vaults.

Now, when the elevator doors open, what assails the nostrils is a scent of plants and vegetables. Not surprising, really, because here in six rooms of greenhouses covering almost a square kilometer, where once bullion and bills were stacked, now vegetables, rice, herbs and flowers grow in an environment that is almost entirely chemical-free.

In the vegetable room, for instance, huge tomato plants tower and twist from tanks toward the ceiling, loaded with green and red fruits cultivated and nourished hydroponically, using nutrient-enhanced water instead of natural soil. Tank-farming like this makes it possible to grow plants quickly by maintaining an optimal balance of nutrients, and also means bulbous tomatoes can be harvested all year round.

News photo
A seed germinator at Pasona O2

But tomatoes cannot live off liquids alone, and the light from about 50 special fluorescent lamps on the ceiling is bounced off the room's aluminum-foil-covered walls to ensure they can photosynthesize to their tomato-heart's content.

"Try a bite," Nemoto said, offering me a deep-red slice of a tomato. Though it grew without natural light and no soil, and in a computer-controlled environment, there was nothing to say about that tomato's taste but oishii!

Then there was the subterranean paddy field. The rice planted in February, when the farm started, has grown well and is thickening up well to be harvested in June. In that room, where pseudo-summer 28-degree heat has already arrived, about 30 halogen and high-voltage sodium lamps speed up the growth cycle and allow three harvests a year.

Rich and unplowed furrows

The 180-million-yen project, with an annual running cost of about 20 million yen, is a Pasona brainchild to explore business opportunities in the field of agriculture.

News photo
Yasuyuki Nambu

The staffing company's reclamation of the "field" began about five years ago, when CEO and President Yasuyuki Nambu made a trip around Japan in search of employment-creation inspiration. What he came back with was a conviction that agriculture, and related processing and distribution industries, were rich and unplowed furrows.

But it is not just a supply-side thing. As well, Nambu and his Pasona cohorts realized that as more and more people are now "thinking outside the box" and leaning toward diverse values in both their lifestyles and work, many are coming to regard farming as a career option.

Latching on to this trend, the company is now actively trying to change the image of farming from being demanding, dirty and dangerous to one that -- as with its high-tech showcase under Otemachi's streets -- combines the wonders of nature and the latest technology.

"Japan has advanced agricultural technology, but its self-sufficiency in food is so low compared with other developed nations," Nambu said. "Agriculture and high-tech -- if we could combine the two things effectively, I thought it would lead to the creation of many new job opportunities.

"But most people assume that farms are deep in the countryside and that farming is the exclusive domain of longstanding farming families. I thought we needed a place in Tokyo for people, ranging from young people to business people, to learn better about agriculture and to think about working in the industry. That is why we created this basement farm."

At present, more than 100 people a day visit the Otemachi "farm," some merely out of curiosity, but others -- among them researchers and farmers -- keen to examine the quality of the products, some of which the PR section's Nemoto explained can be sampled in bite-size chunks as people tour the site.

In business terms, Pasona believes that the staffing business targeting agriculture will take at least five years to ripen, because not only do people's perceptions of agricultural life have to change, but also the government has to move to reform the current agricultural administration, Nemoto said.

Nambu, Pasona's president, however, is confident about the business possibilities his company can harvest from the farm project.

"Now we are growing tomatoes here. But I want to utilize the same technology to grow fruits such as melons and mangosteens. I want to produce 'imported' fruits here regardless of the season" to show the future of agriculture, he said.

"I believe there is no limit when it comes to the variety of fruits we can harvest here, far below the Otemachi traffic."



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