This Ginormous Factory Farm Can Grow 10,000 Heads of Lettuce per Day

Japanese plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura hopes his merger of technology and agriculture can end world hunger.

(Photo: Courtesy of GE Reports)

Jul 15, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

In the three years since a horrific earthquake and tsunami rocked eastern Japan, entire cities have been rebuilt, and the world has taken to worrying about radiation affecting seafood. Meanwhile, Japanese plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura has been working on a project that might just solve the globe’s hunger crisis: overseeing a gigantic factory farm in Miyagi Prefecture that can grow 10,000 heads of lettuce every day.

Shimamura has turned a former Sony Corporation semiconductor factory into the world’s largest indoor agriculture operation. The facility, which opened this July after two years of product testing, is half the size of a football field. But it’s not the farm’s size that sets it apart—after all, there are plenty of massive industrial agriculture operations around the world that aren’t able to grow produce so quickly. What makes Shimamura’s farm unusual is the technology he’s using: special LED light fixtures.

“I knew how to grow good vegetables biologically and I wanted to integrate that knowledge with hardware to make things happen,” Shimamura told GE Reports. Thanks to these LED devices, which were developed using GE’s proprietary technology, Shimamura is able to control the amount of light the plants receive and maximize crop output.

“We want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment,” he said.

Shimamura’s not just looking to churn out a substandard product. He’s out to maximize the quality of the lettuce while facilitating a more eco-friendly growing process. Over the past two years of testing, he has figured out the optimal amount of light and darkness the lettuce needs to speed up the growing process and produce a high-quality crop.

He told GE that a traditional farm chucks 50 percent of its lettuce because of quality issues. In comparison, only 10 percent of a lettuce crop grown under the glow of the LED lights has to be thrown out. That’s boosted productivity and enabled the farm to use less water. Because LEDs use 40 percent less power than fluorescent lights, they’re an energy saver too.

GE Japan hopes that the indoor facilities can solve food shortages around the world. There are plans for similar produce farms in Hong Kong and the Russian Far East. “Finally, we are about to start the real agricultural industrialization,” said Shimamura.