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Gulfood Green 2024

10 Jan 2024

South Korea: Passionate farmer grows wasabi at home using DIY-system

South Korea: Passionate farmer grows wasabi at home using DIY-system

"Wasabi is one of the most expensive crops in the world as it sells for around 300 USD per kg. This price is likely to continue high, as overall demand seems to be growing at a good pace and the supply is somewhat limited," says Hwisoo Cha, a passionate home farmer, and former investment analyst living in Seoul, South Korea.

As the founder of Wasabi Factory, Hwisoo aims to standardize wasabi farming methods for vertical farms and become a major wasabi supplier in the local market. The long-term goal is to expand the business into Japan where high-end products are consumed.

"There is a good chance that I can produce around 20 units with a minimum of 60g of rhizome by mid-2024. Once, I get more cultivation experience, I plan to change the environment and nutrition to make different flavors and maximize production. This part of the experiment is planned to start in the pre-commercial farm by the end of 2024 or early 2025."

After getting involved with vertical farming through his former job, Hwisoo figured he should use his green fingers and built a 'testing area' of only 4.6 cubic meters (1m x 2.3m x 2m). His love for wasabi drove Hwisoo to kick off the first trials with the distinctive crop.

Surprising results
Spending a few days sketching the design, the area was set up within two weeks including two 3-level shelves, with four wasabi plants on every level, attached to a DIY-aeroponic system. Adopting AC and a heater, Hwisoo can maintain a balanced indoor temperature for the crops.

With room for 48 plants, Hwisoo started with 24 wasabi plants, which he found a great starting point. Then an additional seven wasabi plants are grown in a pot to compare the growth cycle in a similar environment.

As the passionate farmer explains, wasabi is known to be very difficult to farm and it takes a long time to grow. On average, a plant requires 18 months to fully mature with stable temperatures of 12-15 degrees Celsius, oxygen-rich- and well-drained soil, traditionally.

The first step for Hwisoo is learning how to grow wasabi indoors and the accompanied processes. It seems that in the past two months, the wasabi plants don't mind the aeroponic setup as they are flourishing.

Given the increasing difficulties for outdoor wasabi growers, Hwisoo's goal is to build a vertical farm that could solve at least the climate part of the problem. "My experimental facility is already showing good results and giving the ideal climate the wasabi is growing rather fast."

Once the first harvest is reeled in, Hwisoo plans to sell to both B2B and B2C markets as demand is rising. "In Korea, many people, including myself, are a fan and big consumers of wasabi as it's often included in the daily cuisine. On the B2B side, smaller-sized restaurants are having a hard time sourcing fresh wasabi due to high price tags and low supply. If I could sell wasabi to these restaurants at a reasonable and stable price, there is a win-win situation for both parties."

Expansion plans
In mid-2024, Hwisoo aims to expand into a new building that has a minimum growing space of 330m2. Once the farm operates at full capacity, he expects to grow more than 25,000~30,000 units of wasabi rhizome, which roughly equates to 1,750kg of wasabi every year. Which according to his calculations translates into potential sales of over 525,000 USD

After two to three years of pre-commercial farm operations, Hwisoo intends to set up two (or more) vertical farms of around 1650m2 and a plant cell culture facility for the continuous supply of wasabi seedlings. In the longer run, he is planning to export wasabi (products) and the systems to Japan for further expansion of the business.

Hwisoo plans to tap into other crops such as fresh herbs or tropical fruits once he gets a hold in wasabi farming. "These two crops are often overpriced and there are loads of business opportunities so you can grow them at a reasonable cost."

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