High-tech farm fruit and vegetables come out of the tunnel in South Korea

High-tech farm fruit and vegetables come out of the tunnel in South Korea

High-tech farm fruit and vegetables come out of the tunnel in South Korea

Behind the blue wall around a former road tunnel is an unexpected sight: a huge indoor plantation tinted in pink light. Fruit and vegetables grow there as hydroponics in superimposed levels and are illuminated with neon-pink light-emitting diodes instead of sunlight. According to the operators, the high-tech farm in South Korea is the first so-called vertical agriculture in a tunnel. With an area of ​​2,300 square meters, it is also the largest single plantation in the country and one of the largest in the world.

Vertical farms are seen as a possible solution to current challenges in agriculture, such as climate change and extreme weather. They lead to immense crop losses, as does the scarcity of land and workers in countries with an aging population. The tunnel, about 190 kilometers south of the capital Seoul, was built in 1970 for one of the country’s first expressways. The former symbol of the industrialization of South Korea was closed in 2002.

A vertical farming company rented the building from the government last year and converted it into a “smart farm”. Instead of the chirping of crickets, “Clair de Lune” from a piano suite by Claude Debussy can now be heard. The sounds are supposed to promote the healthy growth of the fruit, as Choi Jae Bin, head of the operating company NextOn, explains. “We play classical music because vegetables like to listen to the music we like,” he says.

Under optimized conditions, a total of 60 different types of fruit and vegetables grow according to a breeding and harvesting system specially developed by NextOn. According to technology boss Dave Suh, 42 of them are certified as free of pesticides, herbicides and genetic engineering. Temperatures in the tunnel range between ten and 22 degrees, which enables optimal growth conditions, as Suh explains.
According to experts, vertical farms like these can make a significant contribution to the development of sustainable agriculture. This is particularly important in countries with difficult growing conditions such as Dubai and Israel, where such plants are already in operation.

The botanist Son Jong Eek of the National University in Seoul explains: “Society is aging and urbanization is advancing, while the number of people employed in agriculture is shrinking.” So-called smart farming can help to overcome these challenges and also make it easier to grow high quality crops that are sensitive to temperature and other conditions.
In South Korea, according to government information, only a little more than 16 percent of the area was used for agriculture in 2016. The rural population has shrunk by almost half in the past 40 years, despite the fact that the total population has increased by almost 40 percent. The Ministry of Agriculture announced a few months ago that it would invest nationwide in the development of smart farming. The agricultural area is to grow from currently 4010 hectares to 7000 hectares.

Because of the high construction and infrastructure costs for vertical farms, it is not always easy to make a profit. NextOn managed to cut construction costs in half by using the disused tunnel and developing its own LED lights and other technology.
The patented technology reduces water and energy consumption as well as manpower requirements, which lowers production costs, says Suh. Sensors in each vertical plane measure a multitude of variables such as temperature, humidity, light as well as carbon dioxide and particulate matter pollution in order to create an optimal environment for each fruit. Cultivation is cheaper than in conventional agriculture, explains the head of technology.

These days, NextOn says it is starting to supply a large grocer and a leading bakery chain with fruit and vegetables. The next project: to plant more rows of plants in the remaining two thirds of the tunnel, for example to grow medicinal herbs there. The market for medicinal plants is currently dominated by a few countries and regions, says Suh. The goal of NextOn is “a stable mass production of such premium plants”.