Neat rows of strawberry plants are maintained in a Talegaon greenhouse. But this is no ordinary greenhouse. The temperature and water are remote controlled and the strawberry farm is supervised by agriculture experts in Japan through the internet.
The Nippon Electrical Corporation (NEC),Japan,the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), Pune,have introduced a successful information technology based strawberry farm in Talegaon as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project to empower rural women. The project is called Ichigo,which means strawberries in Japanese.
Last June,Hiroki Iwasa,Japanese Agricultural expert assisting NEC in the Ichigo project,visited Pune to look for a suitable place to set up a greenhouse as an experiment to find whether the method would work in India. After a meeting with Shankar Jadhav,secretary of the Institute of Cultural Affairs,India,an NGO that works for empowerment of people from rural areas,they decided to set up the greenhouse at a property in Talegaon.
We imported the 40-acre greenhouse shed,equipment for nutriculture,cooling devices and sensors to gauge water and temperature,from Japan. The strawberry farms empower women not through employment,but through partnership. We will provide the investment and they will engage in the management. Over 50 per cent of the profits from sale of strawberries will be given to corporations formed by rural women who will manage these farms in different villages, said Masahiko Murakami,Senior manager,CSR and environmental management promotion group,NEC,Japan.
This novel idea of strawberry cultivation had struck Iwasa after his grandfathers strawberry farm at Yamamoto Cho was wiped out by the tsunami and earthquake in March,2011. The soil flooded with seawater for days was unsuitable for strawberry cultivation. Most people in Yamamoto Cho town earn a living through strawberry cultivation. After the tsunami,they were left with barren farms where they could not grow anything. I came up with a concept to grow strawberries without use of soil,through an information technology based method, said IT professional Iwasa. The saplings are placed on a bed of coco peat (a byproduct of the coir industry) and a stream of nutrient-rich water is allowed to pass through. The water that is not soaked by coco peat is collected in a drum to be reused. Coco peat does not contain any nutrient in itself but it allows proper temperature control. Iwasa started reconstructing farms in his hometown with the support of GRA (General Reconstruction Association),an organisation which helps develop tsunami-stricken areas in Japan. After his success in reconstructing farms in Japan,he has joined hands with NEC to promote this hassle-free farming in India.
I visited a traditional Indian farm and was sad to see women crawling on the ground searching for strawberries to pluck. My method of strawberry cultivation is a more hygienic process, said Iwasa.
The pilot project kicked off at Talegaon in November and the first harvest was around a week ago. The strawberries are for high-end clients like five star hotels. The tentative price is Rs 600 a kg. Since our produce is in smaller quantities,we want to pitch our sales to a niche market. The focus of our project is to produce high quality Ichigos, said Murakami.