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Startups

Underground farms sprout in Seoul's subway stations

Consumers give thumbs up to less polluted air

Seoul Metro and startup Farm8 are exploring innovative methods of food production in urban areas. (Photo by Kotaro Hosokawa)

SEOUL -- Subterranean vegetable farms are cropping up at subway stations in Seoul in a collaboration between Seoul Metro and an agricultural startup to utilize vacant spaces and diversify the subway operator's revenue sources.

Seoul Metro is renting idle spaces to Farm8, a startup with about 300 employees which supplies vegetables grown indoors efficiently and safely to retailers and restaurants.

Farm8 is also testing farm cafes in three stations and plans to open more outlets in the future, as well as to export longer-life vegetables, including paprika, to Japan.

Passing through a ticket gate at Sangdo Station on Line 7 of Seoul Metro in the central area of the city, passengers can see a glass-walled room filled with leafy vegetables in an underground space. Business people and families are seen relaxing at a cafe equipped with juicer-mixers and coffee machines next to Metro Farm, which opened in September last year.

As South Korea's subway stations contain large underground spaces, most transfer hubs and other big stations have commercial areas with restaurants and shops. However, locations further away from ticket gates are often left unused because they are unattractive to retailers.

Hydroponically grown vegetables at a Metro Farm in Seoul's Dongjak district. (Photo by Kotaro Hosokawa)

Seoul Metro has been seeking tenants that will help improve the image of subway stations without additional costs as part of efforts to make use of unoccupied spaces, said Kim Seong-jin, a Seoul Metro manager. Farm8, which runs vegetable farms nationwide, grabbed Kim's attention.

Unlike with ordinary tenants, Seoul Metro signed a 10-year contract with Farm8 to cover rents and provide a fixed amount of profit. The store also provides a space next to the cafe in which children can learn about agriculture.

Some 30 types of vegetables, including varieties of lettuce, basil and edible flowers, are grown in a cultivation room of about 200 sq. meters. The plan is to harvest 30 to 40 kg of vegetables a day on shelves of about 4 meters and sell them as ingredients for the cafe's salads, priced at 5,900 won ($5.04), and 3,000-won vegetable juice. Vegetables that are unsuitable for consumption at the cafes will be sold to outside restaurants.

Growing hydroponic vegetables under light-emitting diodes is 40 times more efficient per unit area than growing them outdoors, according to Yeo Chan-dong, assistant manager of Farm8. The company's hydroponic vegetables are gaining popularity among consumers, particularly parents, who are wary of vegetables grown outdoors because of air pollution caused by PM2.5 -- particulate matter that measures less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter -- which is seen as hazardous in South Korea.

The company will operate stores combining cultivation rooms and cafes depending on locations, including setting up salad box vending machines at subway stations in business districts. Farm8 has already started testing "smart farms" in which artificial intelligence-powered robots will plant and harvest vegetables as well as adjust water quality. It also plans to develop new types of stores so that it can reduce operation costs, and it will open two more outlets in early 2020.

There is still so much to do to improve the profitability of the subway station business, Yeo said, but Farm8 plans to open more Metro Farm stores, betting that opening "plant factories" at subway stations used by several million people per day will have a huge advertising impact. The effort is likely to draw attention as a new method of local food production for local consumption in urban areas.

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