How Smart is South Korea’s Smart Agriculture? Time for an upgrade!

In the recent years the interest for cooperation between South Korea and the Netherlands has grown, and lead to introduction of many advanced smart agricultural technologies from the Netherlands to Korea. Although South Korea has embraced Smart Farming, the road ahead is a long one and the majority of farmers are still using conventional farming methods. To better understand the current status and development of smart agriculture in South Korea, it is important to know the role of Korea's new government and the direction this new government has in mind for the country’s smart agriculture.

Smart Farming rate by item
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Smart agriculture and development plans

Korea’s new government is focusing on smart agriculture, again! One of the new government’s economic policy for the next five years will focus on sectors "leading economy for the future" which include the so called ‘smart agriculture diffusion and advancement.’ The key is to open new possibilities in ‘smart farms’, such as establishing a smart farm big data platform and operating an innovation valley. At a recent Cabinet meeting, President Yoon Seok-yeol also called for innovation, saying, "I hope that agriculture will change into a smart agriculture and move forward.” In this regard, the National Assembly Budget Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs recently published research reports on smart agriculture and development plans, respectively, drawing attention to these fields.

Need for strengthening workforce and technology development

As of 2021, the domestic 'smart agriculture' took up 6,485ha of facility horticulture and 4,743 households of livestock. Smart farming seems to have advanced compared to 2014, when the country had 405ha of smart farms and 23 households of smart livestock. However, it is difficult to find a third-generation unmanned and automated model with converging high-tech technologies. Currently around 85% of the first-generation small-scale smart farms still operate on low technology. With reference to a report titled ‘The Status of Smart Agriculture Promotion Project and Improvement Tasks’, the Korean Ministry of Planning pointed out that it is necessary to analyze these problems, and distribute more advanced and well scaled smart farms.

Another problem is that smart farm crops are mainly concentrated on four items: strawberry, melon, tomato, and paprika. In the field, wide varieties of agricultural management are centered on field crops, and as of 2020, only 149 farms introduced smart farms in the field crops and fruit fields. There are also concerns that the spread of smart farms will only intensify competition among farmers unless it is accompanied by diversification of applied items and the discovery of new markets. It is because most agricultural products produced by smart farms are distributed through the same channels as existing agricultural products, with an exception for some of the export volume.

Contrary to the government's plan to create a youth start-up ecosystem by revitalizing smart agriculture, the proportion of young people among smart farm owners has stagnated at around 10% over the past three years. Young farmers under 40 have great practical difficulties such as initial investment costs, professional education, and securing farmland. Therefor smart farms have been widely distributed  among more financially fit farms, mainly between 50 and 60 years of age. According to Byun Jae-yeon, a budget analyst at the Economic Industry Project Evaluation Division of the Office for Planning, the Korean government is pushing for the introduction of a rental system for smart farms, training education and manpower through youth start-up care centers. He also emphasized that "As various projects are delayed, and the beneficiaries are limited to a small number, efforts to improve future performance and visualization are needed."

The report also examined the performance and problems of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) data collection and utilization, R&D, and industrial infrastructure construction sector. In particular, data, an essential element of smart agriculture, should be collected and utilized throughout production, environment, distribution, and consumption. Still, there is a need to improved the data collection and not only focus on production data. In addition, it suggested to train farmers to use advanced agriculture machinery and reinforce smart agriculture technology and machinery, with the aim to support the modernization of the agriculture industry.

Promote regional specialization in Innovation Valley by attracting leading companies

The Smart Farm Innovation Valley is at the core of the strategy to realize agricultural production and transform the current industry to a smart agricultural industry. Smart Farm Innovation Valley was established in North Jeolla (Gimje), South Jeolla (Goheung), North Gyeongsang (Sangju), and South Gyeongsang (Milyang) as a model for joint growth of agriculture and its accompanying industries, concentrating on youth workforce training and technological innovation functions.

The Korean Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs introduced the five significant strategies of innovation valley and implementation tasks for them in the report "Study on Mid- to Long-Term Development Plan of Smart Farm Innovation Valley." The five strategies address ‘Promoting Smart Farm Youth Startup’, ‘Training Smart Agricultural Professional’, ‘Integration of Innovation Valley to Revitalize the Community’, ‘Smart Agricultural Industry Ecosystem’, ‘Organization and Independence’. The implementation plan of the mentioned strategy focuses on strengthening the network of rural population returning to the rural area, young farmers, and leading farmers to establish a start-up information system for young people. This information system would operate an online platform that provides greenhouse information. The innovation valley has the ambition to create a residential environment for workers , with the aim to further revitalize the local community and expand existing knowledge networks by attracting government-funded and private research institutes. The implementation plan further covers developing an optimized glass greenhouse ICT technology, various technologies in crop cultivation, and applied technology to field crops.

The report and implantation plan focus on current or developing regional opportunities for cooperation, as shown below:

  • North Jeolla Province has collaborated with various knowledge networks, including nine universities and 14 public research institutes, to form a ‘knowledge-based globalization model.’
  • South Jeolla Province can promote a ‘smart agricultural industry development technology field demonstration-based diffusion model’ through the participation of various field farmers, with the aim to commercialize the technology of companies in this sector.
  • North Gyeongsang Province can develop into a ‘smart agricultural industrialization model based on industrial convergence’ that combines its industry’s ecosystems with agriculture.
  • South Gyeongsang Province can establish a ‘smart farm mega innovation valley model based on local farmers' participation’ that utilizes the nation's No. 1 facility cultivation status and potential.

The Industry-Academy Cooperation Group of the National Suncheon University, who conducted this research emphasized that the establishment of a separate agency is needed for innovation valley’s smooth operation. This agency would then be in charge of integrating and revitalizing the innovation valley, fostering and attracting smart agricultural industries, especially leading companies.


KJ Hong, Nongmin News, published on 22 June.

Smart Farm in livestock
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