With agricultural sectors massively subsidized globally, with threats posed by pesticides and herbicides raising international concerns and with chemical-free organic farming a hugely risky undertaking, could the future see the sector move off the farm and into a box?

An underground, vertical smart farm established last month in – of all places – a Seoul subway station points to one possible solution.

In Sangdo, a subway station serving a southern Seoul residential neighborhood, Korea’s first “Metro Farm” – an urban, underground smart farm – opened on September 23. A second has just started operation and two more are under construction and will open by the end of the year.

The metro farms are a partnership between the sustainability- centric administration of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and commercial smart farm firm company Farm 8.

“Seoul was looking for a company that would grow, and which had the capability to operate a system,” said Kim Sung-un, a senior manager at Farm 8. “We had 10 years of history, so Seoul received applications and they chose us.”

Making Sangdo Station sustainable

The result in Sangdo is an impressively futuristic-looking space that would not look out of place on a spacecraft – which is, incidentally, one potential future application of smart farms.

Covering 394-square meters, it is divided into four separate zones. There is the main facility, a glassed-in, vertical farm, a smaller, self-contained smart farm in a shipping container, an education space for children and an outlet where produce is sold and consumed on-site.

Inside the air shower. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Sterilized outwear – lab hats, coats and overboots – are donned before entering the vertical farm. After being wafted by an “air shower,” trays of herbs and lettuce, at various stages of cultivation and stacked floor-to-ceiling, can be seen in the pinkish, artificial light.

Eight vegetables are being cultivated in Sangdo, under LED lighting, in trays of hydroponics – composed of algae, water and nutrients – that take the place of soil.

The smaller container farm displays Farm 8’s smart farm-in-a-box product. Here, the farm’s digital monitoring and control panels can be seen, close up, in addition to the growing produce.

“People in Korea are very concerned about fine-dust pollution,” said Kim who, together with a Seoul City official, recently showed foreign reporters around the farm. “We are not pulling in dirty air from outside or from the subway. We have a filtration system.”

Inside the container smart farm. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Thanks to this sealed, sterile environment, vertical farms have no need for widely-demonized herbicides or pesticides. Moreover, the vegetables grown boast slightly higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than regular vegetables, Kim said.

These messages are being promulgated to a small audience.

“These are not only farm facilities, these are places where children can see urban farming for education purposes,” Kim said. A classroom includes puzzles, stickers, workbooks that teach about balanced diets.

“At the end of the sessions, the children get the chance to harvest some vegetables, and we finish with a quiz,” Kim said. Signup is online.

Sangdo’s metro farm is a full nose-to-tail operation – its salad bar sells cartons of produce to eat on-site or to take home, together with juice drinks. While Seoul City may have partnered with Farm 8 for reasons of sustainability, the concept is not simply about being smart and doing good, Kim insisted.

“The most important thing is that the facilities must be able to make a profit without [government] support,” he said, although he admitted that Farm 8 benefits from generous government energy subsidies for farms. “That is what makes us competitive.”

The end product had the thumbs up from one customer dining at the café.

“I live in this area and this was my first time to see this kind of thing,” said Kim Ji-eun, 30, a teacher dining on a salad with bulgogi topping, a Korean beef dish that translates as “fire meat.”

Describing herself as “an avid veggie lover” she added: “I’d prefer more toppings, though.”

Alas, Farm 8 does not do cattle farming. But it offers plenty of other budding ideas.

Packaged salads on offer in Seoul’s first ‘Metro Farm.’ Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Down on the smart farm

Unlike traditional farming work, with its requirement for spadework and heavy machinery, smart farming labor is light. With almost all processes – bar seeding and harvesting – fully automated or using robots, the main job is monitoring.

According to Kim, Seoul’s four metro farms require only three monitoring staff – and disabled people were hired for the job. “The good thing about smart farming is that we can include those who are socially excluded, and that is why Seoul City is so proactive,” Kim said. “And these systems are something women can work on, there is no hard labor.”

These characteristics make smart farms suitable for a generation that has turned away from traditional agriculture, Kim said, referencing the lack of young people entering the farming sector in heavily urbanized and industrialized South Korea.

The farms are also applicable in environments where traditional farming is not feasible – such as deserts and arctic climate zones. “There is a smart farm in the Korean base in Antarctica,” Kim said. “Theoretically, smart farms could operate on spacecraft, but we have not had the chance to try that.”

Sangdo Station’s vertical farm maximizes the use of space. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Farm 8

Farm 8 is headquartered in the port-industrial hub of Pyeongtaek on the Yellow Sea coast south of Seoul. The company, founded as an agribusiness in 2008, has seen approximately 20% growth per year, Kim said.

Under the “wellness” trend, which is prompting growth in areas such a premium mineral waters and organic vegetables, the salad market is on the rise – hence the firm’s main business is salad production and distribution.

In partnership with about 70 farms nationwide, Farm 8 grows about 50 vegetables, selling roughly 30 tons of packaged salads per day. Clients include Starbucks and GS25, a leading nationwide convenience store chain.

Salad is 80% of Farm 8’s business. Retailing and servicing smart farms is the other.

Eat greens, get smart. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

That breakdown offers the business two prongs: domestic produce supply and global hardware supply. While salad distribution is only feasible in the domestic market – due to the short sell-by dates of fresh vegetable products – the smart farm market is global, Kim said. Farm 8 is now selling its container farms to Japan as well as in South Korea.

“Our main focus is our LED light technology,” Kim said – appropriate, given South Korea’s strengths in that industry. “We own the technology. These are the best LED lights for plant growth,” he claimed.

Under the brand “Cultivate the Future,” Farm 8 operates the largest number of smart farms in South Korea. Customers who buy a smart farm unit from Farm 8 get a monthly service visit.

Units vary from refrigerator-sized vertical farms, suitable for in-home use, to 40-foot containers, which are more appropriate for restaurants, canteens or actual farms. The container farms retail at 150,000,000 won (US$129,000) – about half the price of a downtown Seoul apartment.

Still, Kim admits that smart farms are not suited to every kind of vegetable. “We can produce potatoes or tomatoes, but they are not cost effective,” Kim said.

However, they are ideal for lettuce – widely used in Korean cuisine as wraps for barbequed meat and fish – and herbs – widely used in Korean cuisine and medicine.

In these areas, Farm 8 boasts real competitiveness. “Compared to ordinary farmland, we are 40% more profitable as we are stacked in layers,” Kim said. “Our system uses less space and offers faster growth.”

Moreover, smart farms bridge a seasonal gap in Korea’s traditional farming calendar. “In Korea, in summer, it is too hot to cultivate greens, so prices fluctuate,” Kim said. External heat, however, does not impact temperature-controlled smart farms.

Another advantage is risk-management. “The agriculture sector is risky. Even if there is a lettuce problem in Europe, people stop eating lettuce here,” he said. Smart farms, however, are firewalled from both blights and fear of blights.

Farms of the future

Farm 8 is thinking outside the box when it comes to its future business lines.

In its next subway outlet – in central Seoul’s super-busy Euljiro Station – Farm 8 is planning a produce café complete with salad vending machines for on-the-go Seoulites.

It is also planning to install allotment-style smart farms in upmarket apartments, where families would be able to grow their own vegetables at a central, managed facility in the complex.

With Farm 8 being largely a B2B company with limited human resources, the plan, Kim said, would see the operation of the apartment complex farms outsourced to a rental company.

Looking to the broader future, the company is peering beyond salads and toward the cosmetic and medical sectors.

“They need special herbs and other ingredients for both cosmetics and drugs,” Kim said, noting the rising demand for pesticide-free herbal face packs. “We are researching this with both government and universities, and expect to see results in three years.”

Buds in a box: Checking out the station’s container smart farm. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon