In conversation with Taizo Sano
The man behind the biggest horticulture project in Japan
In Kasoaka, Japan, construction of the horticultural project measuring 128,269 m2 is well underway. The complex comprises three greenhouses where lettuce, tomatoes and red peppers will be grown. Time for an interview with Sano-San, an old acquaintance of Van der Hoeven and one of the founders of the largest horticultural project in Japan.
1. Can you tell us something about your career?
After graduating from the Faculty of Agriculture, Kyoto Prefectural University, I started my career at Kagome Co., Ltd., the largest producer of tomato based products in Japan. After becoming the President of Kagome USA in 1998, I managed Kagome’s fresh tomato business at large-scale greenhouses, and I became a managing executive officer in 2006. After retiring from Kagome in 2016, I founded SARA Inc.
2. What is the mission of your company SARA?
At SARA — which stands for Smart Agribusiness Research & Alliance — we want everyone to enjoy fresh, tasty, healthy, and safe grown vegetables in Japan year-round. To achieve this goal, we are combining cutting-edge horticultural technology with state-of-the-art renewable energy technology to create an efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective agricultural system.
For our roll-out, we have chosen as our stage a vast area of reclaimed land in Kasaoka Bay, Okayama Prefecture. One of the four largest areas of reclaimed land in Japan, this region’s virgin soil provides the perfect environment for an entirely new approach to farming. Both working closely with local communities and engaging in intensive research and development, as well as developing strategic relationships with a variety of companies, we aim to establish an agricultural model that will connect us to the future.
Our strength lies not only in the size of our company, but in the scope of our ambition. Our commitment is to grow into a future vegetable company not just in Japan, but in all of Asia, evolving the innovative cultivation technologies we now possess into something even more advanced and efficient.
3. In Kasaoka, Japan, you are currently building the most large-scale horticultural project of its kind.
This horticultural project covers 128,269 m² and consists of three greenhouses where lettuce, tomatoes and peppers will be grown.
What made you decide to build this high-tech greenhouse project at this stage of your career?
Even after building several glass greenhouses in Japan in the course of the past 20 years, I could not achieve an innovative level of tomato horticulture. For the future of the Japanese greenhouse industry and young horticulturists, I would like to demonstrate a large-scale successful horticultural business that does not depend on subsidies.
4. What makes this project unique?
SARA’s projects have been built in partnership with Van der Hoeven from the Netherlands and Takuma of Japan. This top-tech semi-closed greenhouse and advanced biomass power plant alliance creates the world’s first air conditioned greenhouse that runs on renewable energy.
5. Where are you going to market your lettuce, tomatoes and peppers?
SARA markets high quality vegetables mainly at major supermarkets in Japan.
6. How long have you been working with Van der Hoeven?
The first meeting with Van der Hoeven was about 20 years ago in Canada.
After many greenhouse visits and consultations, I chose Van der Hoeven for the (10 ha) largest tomato greenhouse in Japan in 2003.
7. How would you describe the collaboration with Van der Hoeven?
I am pleased with Van der Hoeven’s open company culture which allows us to communicate with everyone at the company: from top management, to skilled engineers, project managers, shipping staff, sales people, and onsite supervisors.
8. What’s your vision on the future of horticulture in Japan?
The industry has been evolving towards modern greenhouses, but the majority of vegetables grown is still produced by small family-owned plastic greenhouses built with subsidies. I believe the Japanese government should initiate the development of huge agro parks for large-scale horticulture companies.
9. What is your ambition / your company’s ambition for the next 5 years?
After successful roll-out of the current SARA project, I expect to expand the next phase of a similar greenhouse with domestic and international investors on reclaimed land in Kasaoka. Furthermore, SARA hopes to export high quality fresh vegetables to major cities in South-West Asian countries. I also see opportunities to build similar projects based on the same SARA business models in these Asian countries as well.
The first ModulAIR lettuce greenhouse was completed In May 2017. Meanwhile the construction of phase 2 is already well on its way. An interview with Howard Kosaka, one of the initiators.
1.Can you tell us something about yourself? Education, profession?
I studied Agriculture, Commerce and Business Administration. BSc (Ag) at the University of British Columbia. I was sole owner and operator of a Tomato greenhouse facility for 17 years, followed by joint venture partnership(s).
2. Your connection to Van der Hoeven goes a long way back. How long and in which way were/are you connected to Van der Hoeven?
I started building with Van der Hoeven in 1989 and stayed with Van der Hoeven ever since. The first greenhouse was a 5 Ha. Beef Tomato greenhouse. In 1991 we built another 5 Ha. greenhouse, but this one was for Truss Tomato. Twelve years later, in 2003 we built a Truss Tomato greenhouse which was much bigger, 13 Ha and we expanded in 2005 with another 10 Ha.
In 2016, I returned to Van der Hoeven for another greenhouse, but in a different role, as a consultant. We started in 2016 with 2.5 Ha. Lettuce, and at this moment we are building another 2.5 Ha. Lettuce greenhouse.
3. The Lettuce greenhouses are situated in Alberta, Canada. What is the climate like and is the decision for the type of greenhouse purely based on the climate in Alberta?
The greenhouses constructed for Tomato production are all located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The greenhouses constructed for Lettuce production are both located in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. The decision to locate the Lettuce production in southern Alberta (49 deg. N latitude) was based on consumer and customer demand for a year-round Canadian grown product. But also the availability of land and water was important. The Alberta climate and then especially the high ambient light in winter and low RH with cool nights in summer played a part in the decision, as well as de-regulated electrical power generation, access to labor, distribution and logistics efficiency.
4. Which possible uncertainties / misgivings / doubts did you have before starting the highly technical greenhouse project for the production of specialty lettuce?
The stacking of several relatively new technologies that were previously not applied for Lettuce production in a different climatic zone is a daunting undertaking. There was little or no historical precedent to draw experience. Despite these uncertainties we still believed in the success of this Van der Hoeven Lettuce greenhouse.
5. What do you think of the greenhouse, anything you would like to emphasize?
The genetic potential of Lettuce seed (or any other seed) can only be accomplished by using technological systems that eliminate plant stress that then promotes optimum balanced growth. The Van der Hoeven greenhouse has been designed and built to achieve these results. These initiatives will move our growing practices away from a traditional approach to a more data driven, plant sensor based approach overtime.
6. How did you experience the cooperation between your company and Van der Hoeven during the construction period and after?
The Van der Hoeven company and its principals have always been, and continue to be cooperative and supportive. The increasing amount of technology and innovation taking place in the Greenhouse industry today, together with the associated costs has emphasized the importance of these relations.
7. The second phase is now being built, a copy of the first phase which was delivered in June 2017. What was the main reason for this quick expansion?
The quick expansion of the Lettuce greenhouse was based on market opportunity and the ability to diversify Lettuce varieties and create a closer match: genotype to environment.
8. What do you think of the current developments in the horticultural industry? What’s your vision on the future of horticulture?
Technological innovations are enabling the Greenhouse industry to expand worldwide despite different geographic climatic conditions and this trend seems likely to continue. And necessarily, there will be a move away from human sensory growing toward a data driven approach as many scientific authors are predicting.
The United Arab Emirates are surely not the most likely location where you would expect to see a greenhouse! No longer true, the development of our intelligent and sustainable HACo system makes it possible to cultivate plants properly even in this difficult desert climate.
At the beginning of the year, the third ModulAIR platform took place at Sundrop Farms in South Australia. The platform was set up by Van der Hoeven to promote knowledge-sharing and to get the absolute most from the ModulAIR greenhouses. With the current number of participants standing at 26, the platform has grown considerably since its inception in 2016 with eight attendees. We interviewed one of the participants in the latest gathering in Australia: Phill Ritchie from Rijk Zwaan.
In November 2015, we successfully completed the first phase of the project in Ekibastuz. In the meantime, the same customer has signed a contract within a year for an extension by another 5 hectares. During the design phase, it was agreed to set up the 2nd phase for vegetable cultivation, not for growing roses like phase 1.