I am writing from a small organic blackberry farm in the foothills of the Taebak Mountains in the eastern Province of Gangwan-Do in South Korea, where I have spent the past week picking and enjoying–with purple stained fingertips and lips–the fruits of such labor. In addition to bokbunja (blackberries), baechu (cabbage) for kimchi, cucumbers, peppers, scallions, squash, corn, and a family of greens including sinseon i meongneun yakcho (the herbs that mountain wizards eat) are also found here. Various pepper and bean sauces marinate in the sun in jangddok (traditional Korean ceramic jars).
Everything here is organic with no reliance on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, a practice that is better for the soil, the plants and also protects the watershed that supplies much of the nation’s capital with water. The farming is rooted in a belief that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.
There is a growing interest in organic products in Korea with a rise in health conscious consumers. And after a special aired on Korean TV about the health benefits of blackberries, this particular farm has been receiving calls and orders from interested buyers around the country. Visitors also come to the farm to pick and pay by the kilo. Many make the three-hour drive from Seoul with a packed lunch and have a picnic on the land before heading out to the bushes to find the blackest of berries to take back to the city. It is that direct consumer/farmer exchange that is most beneficial to the grower. The berries that are not sold on the farm are taken to the agricultural aooperative where they are bought for a lower price, normally the same price as non-organic varieties. Whatever isn’t taken by the cooperative is made into blackberry wine to be stored and sold in years to come.
The monsoon rains usually visit this region in mid-June, but they are making their appearance now, interrupting several days of this season’s peak harvest window. But overall, this year has been a successful one for the farm. It is promising to see a small-scale organic farm like this one thrive. Korean farmers, on the whole, have been suffering for a host of reasons. Lee Kyung Hae brought some of these issues to the world’s attention at the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Cancun, Mexico. He wore a sign saying: “WTO Kills Farmers” and committed suicide, ultimately becoming a martyr for this message. Cheap imports, or dumping, by the U.S. and China have made it very difficult for South Korean farmers to compete. The proposed Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, too, is expected to damage the Korean agricultural sector, though it may benefit automobile and electronics industries.
In GRAIN’s interview with Han Young Me, of the Korean Women Peasants Association, Han discusses the South Korean government’s focus on the nation’s industrial sector but not the rural countryside. She also addresses ways the government promotes Korean corporations’ investing in foreign countries to promote food security, rather than trying to increase Korean self-sufficiency:
“The food self-sufficiency rate in Korea, including rice, is about 25%. If you exclude rice, we import 95% of our food. So, it’s true, the self-sufficiency rate is very low, and the farmers and farmers’ organizations argue that we need to raise the self-sufficiency rate.
This food self-sufficiency rate is what the government uses to justify its policy on farming abroad. And instead of developing good quality land for farming in Korea, the government is giving what land we have to industrial development: for buildings and for industrial complexes. It is also reclaiming coastal lands for industrial use. So the government’s argument is contradictory. We have low food self-sufficiency but instead of developing land for farming, they give the land to industrial use.”
The failed deal between Korea’s Daewoo Corporation and the govenrment of Madagascar to lease farmland was mentioned earlier on the Brighter Green blog. This practice of land-grabbing, considered to be a form of neocolonialism, is being pursued elsewhere and was also a topic of discussion at this year’s just-concluded G8 summit. A recent article in the Guardian discusses this issue further:
“Some of the largest deals include South Korea’s acquisition of 700,000ha in Sudan, and Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 500,000ha in Tanzania. The Democratic Republic of the Congo expects to shortly conclude an 8m-hectare deal with a group of South African businesses to grow maize and soya beans as well as poultry and dairy farming. India has lent money to 80 companies to buy 350,000ha in Africa. At least six countries are known to have bought large landholdings in Sudan, one of the least food-secure countries in the world.”
Here on this small organic farm, I wonder what the Korean rural landscape will look like in the next couple of decades, and what will become of its farmers. Will there be a direct connection between urban consumers and the growers of their food, like on this farm? Could supporting the nation’s farmers and developing local markets be a step toward assuring both national and global food security?