Behind a blue wall that seals a former highway tunnel stretches a massive indoor farm bathed in rose-tinted light.
Fruits and vegetables grow hydroponically — with no soil — in vertically stacked layers inside, illuminated by neon-pink LEDs instead of sunlight.
Operators of this high-tech facility in South Korea said it is the world’s first indoor vertical farm built in a tunnel.
It is also the largest such farm in the country and one of the biggest in the world, with a floor area of 2,300m2 nearly half the size of a football field.
Indoor vertical farming is seen as a potential solution to the havoc wreaked on crops by the extreme weather linked to climate change and to shortages of land and workers in countries with aging populations.
The tunnel, about 190km south of Seoul, was built in 1970 for one of South Korea’s first major highways. Once a symbol of the country’s industrialization, it closed in 2002.
An indoor farming company last year rented the tunnel from the government and transformed it into a “smart farm.”
Instead of the chirrups of cicadas, Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune resonates in the tunnel in the hopes of stimulating the crops’ healthy growth.
“We are playing classical music, because vegetables also love listening to music like we do,” said Choi Jae-bin, head of NextOn, the company that runs the vertical farm.
Sixty types of fruits and vegetables grow in optimized conditions using NextOn’s growth and harvest systems.
Among them, 42 are certified as non-genetically modified and free of pesticides and herbicides, NextOn chief technology officer Dave Suh said.
The tunnel provides temperatures of 10°C to 22°C, enabling the company to optimize growing conditions, he said.
High-tech smart farms, also used in places like Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Israel where growing conditions are challenging, can be a key to developing sustainable agriculture, experts said.
“Society is aging and urbanization is intensifying as our agricultural workforce is shrinking,” said Son Jung-eek, a professor of plant science at Seoul National University.
Smart farming can help address that challenge, as well as make it easier to raise high-value crops that are sensitive to temperature and other conditions, he said.
Only slightly more than 16 percent of South Korea’s land was devoted to farming in 2016, government statistics showed.
The country’s rural population has fallen by almost half over the past four decades, even as the overall population has grown nearly 40 percent, the data showed.
The South Korean Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries earlier this year announced that it would invest in the development of smart farms nationwide, expanding their total area from 4,010 hectares to 7,000 hectares.
Turning a profit can be challenging for indoor vertical farms, given the high cost of construction and infrastructure.
NextOn cut construction costs in half by using the abandoned tunnel and developing its own LED lights and other technologies.
The proprietary technologies reduce water and energy use and the need for workers, cutting operation costs, Suh said.
Sensors in each vertical layer measure variables such as temperature, humidity, light, carbon dioxide and microdust levels to maintain an optimized environment for each crop, he said.
The crops would cost less than conventionally grown organic vegetables, he added.
The farm is to begin supplying vegetables to a major food retailer and a leading bakery chain, NextOn said.
Next up: more tiers of crops in the remaining two-thirds of the tunnel to grow high-value fruits and medicinal herbs.
The medicinal plant market is currently dominated by a few countries and regions, Suh said.
“Our goal is to achieve disruptive innovation of this market by realizing stable mass production of such premium crops,” he said.
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