City agriculture sprouts in Korea

By Suk Gee-hyun
  • Published : Mar 28, 2014 - 21:43
  • Updated : Mar 28, 2014 - 21:43
Lee Yong-ja and Yoo Myung-sub are often seen on the street in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, covered in dirt, carrying gardening tools and plastic bags filled with lettuce and peppers from a hill behind their apartment.

“It’s exciting that you can grow something edible, without having to worry about pesticides or feeling doubtful about its safety,” said Lee, a 60-year-old housewife.

Frustrated by the numerous food scandals that have made the headlines in recent years, Koreans are taking matters into their own hands to keep their dinner tables safe.

The concept of urban gardening and locally grown food began gaining popularity in the mid-2000s, when gardens of various forms popped up across the country.

Lee and Yoo were among the pioneers of the so-called “weekend farms,” unused land or rented farms cultivated by busy city dwellers. 
Weekend farm (Yonhap)
Basil (left) and lollo lettuce in a vertical farm. (Insung Tech)

The trailblazers were people farming for recreation and fresh produce during their spare time.

The boom coincided with the implementation of the five-day workweek, reduced from six days. People had more time to spend with their family members, preferably away from buildings and streets bustling with people.

It also helped that in 2005 the government revised the Agricultural Land Act to offer tax benefits and ease regulations for purchasing unused farms.

“When we first began cultivating vegetables, the hill was just a wasteland with a graveyard in it. Now, it’s packed with gardens so that it’s sort of like a small community of city farmers,” Lee said.

Weekend farms were merely the beginning of a new era in urban agriculture in Korea.

People began planting crops under glass, and up on the roof, with some turning small spaces like balconies into farmable areas.

Like many city dwellers who are strapped for space, Kim Young-eun lives in a two-bedroom apartment with a small terrace in Seoul. But that hasn’t stopped Kim from planting vegetables in her flat to grow safe food for her 2-year-old daughter.

Walking into her house, visitors can see green onions and herbs on the windowsill, and boxes of fresh lettuce, ready to be served. Kim said apartment residents could grow cherry tomatoes, spinach, water parsley, lettuce and chives, using wooden or plastic foam boxes.

“You don’t need a lot of space to get started,” says Kim. “It’s amazing how little space the tomatoes, onions and lettuce need to grow. Parents should certainly try growing crops to serve for their children, using the smallest spaces like windowsills for pots of salad plants.”

She added that we should not only be concerned about where our food comes from ― refocusing our attitudes towards the environment is equally as important.

A growing number of schools in major cities are teaching these lessons by making gardens in empty spaces or on rooftops. In Seoul, a total of 62 schools were offered related subsidies and educational guides by the city government last year.

Among Korean schools joining the move, Myeongeok Elementary School in Daegu won the top prize in a school farming competition hosted by the Rural Development Administration in 2013.

The school selects about 40 plants every season to grow, such as potatoes, carrots, lettuce and sweet potatoes.

“The school farm program has educational, social, environmental and economic aspects. When comparing children who experienced farming at school to those who didn’t, there’s a huge gap in their self-esteem,” Jang Jin, an ecosystem service researcher at Dongguk University in Seoul, said at an urban farming exhibition in Seoul last year.

Though rooftop gardens are not a new phenomenon, urban dwellers have always craved green spaces without having to leave their buildings.

The Seoul city government began encouraging rooftop gardens in 2002 to provide environmental advantages: green roofs filter pollutants, reduce water runoff during storms and lower heating and cooling costs.

According to the Seoul Agricultural Technology Center, rooftop gardens are expected to save people about 16.6 percent on heating and cooling costs.
Rooftop garden (Gangnam District Office)
Basil grown in a rooftop garden in Seoul (Pajeori)

“In the past, city farming was (engaged in) to be self-sufficient, but now it’s more like building a community spirit and making culture along the way,” said Ju Jae-cheon, an official from the center.

To realize this spirit, a group of young people in their 20s and 30s started a local food project in 2012, building a small garden on the rooftop of a building near Gwangheungchang Station in Seoul.

Paejeori’s 130 members take turns every week with the gardening. They are known for their green lifestyle.

The members distribute vegetables cultivated from their rooftop garden to local shops and restaurants, though balancing demand and supply remains a tough task.

“Urban farming cannot be realized without challenges. Water, a gardener and regular attention are all needed, and most of all, it needs to be systemized to really take root in society,” Ju said.

“Then farming doesn’t just end up being a recreational hobby but can help improve food safety and the environment.”

By Suk Gee-hyun (