Two South Korean smart farms are leading the way in using a technically advanced agricultural system with a huge future around the world.
By Ko Dong-hwan
They may be farms, but there are no signs of soil or smelly manure. Instead, the sound of water flowing, a breeze, a pleasant temperature and bright artificial lights fill the indoor space of “smart farms” in South Korea. In this environment, countless numbers of different leafy plants thrive in multi-layered beds.
Humans rarely frequent the enclosure, which looks similar to a laboratory. Apart from a cleaner with a vacuum cleaner that sucks water from empty plant beds, not a soul bothers the plants. A closer look at the crops reveals antenna-looking fixtures as small as a human finger installed here and there.
Unlike the quiet space, the real game happens outside the enclosure ― “played” by computers. Reading data transmitted from the antennas, the computers care for the plants, varying temperature, light intensity and water flow amount, and remote-control the enclosures’ environment to maintain ideal conditions. The operation goes on round-the-clock, regardless of outside factors like seasonal effects, weather conditions, human error or animal intrusions.
Plants grown in artificial environments, controlled by state-of-the-art artificial technologies, may seem odd to some people. Yet, considering how efficiently smart-farming uses natural resources and energy to produce healthy crops continuously, the concept may well become a reality in a major way.
|Plants grow in n.thing’s “Planty Square,” which can be remotely controlled by a smartphone app to supply water for seeds in each pot. / Courtesy of n.thing|
The method is being pursued by n.thing, a smart-farm developer based in Jamwon-dong in Seocho-gu, Seoul. Leo Kim, CEO, came up with a plastic pot called “Pickcell.” The container, measuring just over five centimeters in width, length and depth and weighing 16 grams, works as a module. Attachable to one another, each hydroponic pot grows a single seed and multiple pots produce plants accordingly.
Pickcells can be linked to make a “Planty Square” or in thousands to make a “Planty Cube,” a vertical farm in a shipping container-like space. All the components are Internet of Things inventions, with users controlling them with a dedicated smartphone app that transmits data through the company’s firmware.
|Leo Kim, right, explains his smart-farm products and software at a SXSW booth in Austin, Texas, in 2016. / Courtesy of n.thing|
“Our company is oriented for exports,” says Lee, who started the company in 2014. “Because of the module-based design, the farm is easy to install. The Cube’s container-concept is convenient in that it allows a faster counter-response to contamination compared to a large-scale factory. We don’t have to shut down the entire facility but just isolate containers separately. The module basis also enables easy replacement of hardware parts.”
The company started operating the Cubes in practice early this year, installing three in an unused space in Mia-dong in Gangbuk-gu, Seoul. Afterwards, Lee searched for spaces to install 100 additional Cubes in three locations that he keeps secret. He said they would be operating within this year.
Lee sold Planty Square to about 30 countries on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. In January, the company exported two Planty Cubes to Poshtel hostel in Copenhagen, Denmark, where smart-farming using artificial lights and conveyor belts began in 1957.
Lee believes that future farming is all about data. Crops’ appearance, taste and growth period can all vary depending on different environmental elements that can be adjusted according to data. For example, a cucumber seed, when grown in an African country, can grow several times bigger than in Korea because of the different climate and environment.
Manipulation of the data allows him to customize plants for people who cannot eat fresh plants because of health issues. For people with kidney problems and diabetes, he developed plants without potassium and nitrate, respectively. He has acquired a patent for this.
“We control the data,” Lee says, describing the smart-farm maintenance. “Inside the controlled smart-farms, we can grow crops the way we want. People who buy our module farms need our data to grow plants the way they want.”
Just as traditional computer servers evolved from a physical box to an online cloud server, Lee describes his smart farm models as “cloud farms” that he operates for customers, charging them an operating fee unrelated to output.
“Because traditional farming is affected by seasons and crops’ prices vary accordingly, the supply-and-demand chain is unstable,” Lee says. “Smart farms enable stable production and thus stable pricing. It brings down the cost of 100 grams of lettuce as low as a few hundred won retail. It’s just like the transition from CDs to online streaming for music listeners.”
Lee believes that just as computer engineers need their own working tools to develop programs, farmers need dedicated farming tools to focus on growing crops. He points out that farmers have so far been reluctantly burdened with things other than their main job, from searching for sales routes to managing venues and selling the products.
“The smart farms are a platform for farmers to focus solely on farming,” he says.
|n.thing’s “Planty Cube” is an unmanned smart farm in a space the size of a shipping container. / Courtesy of n.thing.|
Amid wide open farm fields in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province is a cluster of several manufacturing firms. Next to a dusty road, smart-farm operator Miraewon runs six factories 24/7 with about 200 employees, many of them migrant workers.
At one factory called Fresh Farm III, about 20 different species of plants grow in automated indoor environments. Growing on 98 floors of hydroponic beds spanning more than 1,400 square meters, leafy and herb plants densely pack the enclosure beneath LED lights.
“Every day, we sow and harvest,” says Jeong Myeong-hwan, the factory’s chief operator. “The tight daily cycle allows us to harvest enough to meet the required demand. Making money in this industry requires a strong, steady pipeline, as well as quality products.”
The company produces an average 100 kilograms of leafy vegetables and 50 kilograms of herbs each day. This output would not have been possible without the smart-farming technology that reduces the time taken from sowing to harvesting to 33-37 days. Minimizing the growth cycle and still providing good qualities ― vivid colors and plants weighing at least 150 grams per crop ― is not easy, according to Jeong, who left global corporation Samsung to join the burgeoning smart farm industry years ago.
Miraewon has contracts with South Korea’s fried chicken restaurant chain Kyochon and warehouse retailer Costco Korea to provide salad packs containing basil and other greens.
Established in 2004, the company now spearheads domestic smart-farming. Miraewon launched Fresh Farm III in 2014 and built other factories dedicated to making salads, growing herbs, paprika and special vegetables and experimenting with about 60 varieties.
An automated small-scale vertical farm is installed at Hyundai Department Store’s Cheonho branch in Gangdong-gu, Seoul, providing vegetables for a restaurant there.
|Butterheads grow at Miraewon’s Fresh Farm III. / Courtesy of Miraewon|
Miraewon’s efficient pioneering methods were recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, which loaned the company 1.5 billion won ($1.4 million) to develop a demonstration project for domestic farmers. In 2017, Dutch vegetable farm Enza Zaden, which assesses and grades vegetable factories across the world, rated the company third-highest on a scale of 1-10.
Miraewon’s demonstration project, which will be active within this year, will introduce a nutrient film technique (NFT) to replace the old deep-flow technique (DFT). Compared to DFT, which uses potentially hazardous foam in building plant beds and requires five laborers per 300 square meters, NFT uses hazard-free plastic materials and requires as little as two maintenance workers.
“With the demonstration project, we want to surpass Japan,” Jeong says, referring to the nation that has long outpaced South Korea in smart farming. “South Koreans, once well organized with ideas and supporting tools, can make miracles happen. I aim to realize another miracle this time.”
Miraewon’s reputation precedes other domestic smart-farms and motivates it to fulfill its corporate social responsibility. It met members of a disability group and discussed ways to hire physically challenged people as laborers. In this company, age does not really matter. One of the most recent retirees was in his 80s.
The company this year started to teach public servants from other countries about smart-farming. In March, 20 government officials from Laos visited the company. Before this, representatives from 29 countries came to the company to learn South Korea’s state-of-the-art agricultural methods.
Prospects for smart farming
By the end of 2020, Seoul plans to build the nation’s first smart farm in dedicated buildings. Two structures will be in an outdated section of Mok-dong district in Yangcheong-gu, which will be re-urbanized. The city will contribute about 7.5 billion won to the project.
“We will not erect the farms from scratch but instead renovate existing buildings,” said Park Se-hwang from Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Urban Agriculture Division, who leads the smart farming project. “We found no laws or regulations that might cause any legal conflict with the project. So it’s good to go. It’s just a matter of time to secure the site.”
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon is known to be interested in the smart-farm. The city, along with Mok-dong, tried to build another vertical farm near Garak Market in Songpa-gu but the deal fell through.
Because smart-farming requires much more investment ― 10 million won per 3.3 square meters ― compared to vinyl houses or glass houses, and take a painstakingly long time ― up to 10 years ― to offset the cost, starting a smart-farm takes courage. Namyangju in Gyeonggi Province planned the nation’s first smart farm in 2009 but decided the investment cost was too high.
“A 30-storey vertical farm can feed 50,000 people,” says a Seoul Metropolitan Government official citing a Columbia University’s study. “Technological development supporting urban farming and future food businesses are our new perspectives in approaching the (Mok-dong) farm project. No matter how long the project will take, we will get it done.”