When Choi Chang-hwan, a 71-year-old retired oil company worker, wakes up every morning to sweet chirpings of sparrows, his top priority isn’t turning the pages of the morning newspaper while waiting for breakfast, like other aged Korean men.
After jumping out of bed, Choi goes straight to the rooftop of his two-story house in Junghwa-dong, northeastern Seoul, to check the progress of his homegrown vegetables.
“There’s nothing like planting a seed, nurturing it and harvesting it,” Choi said. “It’s amazing to see how vegetables go from my roof to my table. I water them every day and feed them with compost. The seeds sprout and the vegetables grow beautifully.”
Choi said he needs to check his crops every morning to make sure seeds and vegetables aren’t attacked by sparrows, pigeons or bugs.
“I don’t use harmful pesticides,” he said. “I use a small metal pincer to pick bugs off the crops. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
Choi is just one of a growing army of urban farmers in Korea.
While urbanites groan under food prices that never seem to stop rising, due to the higher cost of transport or the freaky weather conditions that are increasingly common, a potential solution for anyone with a rooftop or a balcony is to move the farm to the heart of the city.
That’s what more and more city dwellers are discovering. Urban farming is springing up in spaces all over Korea’s cities, including abandoned lots, weekend community gardens, rooftops and plastic containers on apartment balconies.
Experts are predicting that urban farming isn’t a mere fad as more Koreans see the virtues of food sovereignty due to agflation and rising concerns over food safety.
Green in the city
Urban farming has been catching on in other developed countries including Germany, England, Japan and the United States.
According to a report by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Germany has 1 million small city farms, while England has 300,000, Japan has 3,000 and New York City is home to 600.
The ministry said the urban farming phenomenon is also slowly becoming mainstream in Korea. While there’s no concrete data, the ministry estimates that over 700,000 city dwellers grow vegetables as a hobby in metropolitan areas.
Among those 700,000 people, 153,000 are in Seoul, the ministry said.
Considering that Seoul, the biggest city in Korea, has a population of 10.5 million, that means that 7 percent of Seoul citizens are partaking in urban gardening.