Return to the Land

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As the door opens, a nectarous scent fills the air, the distinct sweet smell of the greenhouse’s main crop. The afternoon’s rays dissipate through the clear vinyl roof, creating a soft warm glow that fills the space. Sitting before us are lines of strawberry plants that stretch as far as the eye can see.

We are standing in rural Nonsan, just a two-hour drive south of Seoul but a world away from the fast-paced metropolis. Here, mountains replace skyscrapers and grasses of rice outnumber people. (In fact, Nonsan’s name in Korean literally means “mountain of rice paddies.”)

Our job that Saturday afternoon is to cut vines containing strawberry seeds off the plants. The local farmer guiding us, Bae Hyoung-taek, conveys to us that all the plants — five rows across three greenhouses spanning a city block — will have to be trimmed by the day’s end. The work will be as hard as the crop is bountiful, but as the old adage goes: you reap what you sow.

On this particular farm, the harvest is not the strawberries themselves. Rather, the true fruits of labor are the plants’ seeds, which are sold to farmers at 350 won each. Bae explains that a good farmer should be able to make 3,000 won off one seed.

While a strawberry farmer can make tenfold in profit from each plant, the farmer actually gets much more from the purchase, because the seed farm itself is a political venture. The money made from seed selling helps fund the area’s association of small farmers, in which Bae is an organizer.

Our group pairs off, and Bae instructs one in each duo to trim the vines with a sickle while the other gathers the seeds. For the next six hours, we make our way through the rows of plants, bending and crouching down to pick up the yield, careful not to hit our heads on the greenhouse’s low-lying ceiling. Later, Bae tells us that many farmers are reluctant to work in these sorts of facilities because of the constant kneeling, but hard economic times mean the backbreaking labor is necessary for survival.

Not too long ago, Bae and his wife were living in Seoul before moving to Nonsan, part of an exodus to the countryside known as guinong. The phrase in Korean literally means “return to farming,” and indeed, for many who make the move, it was only a generation ago that their families were living agrarian lifestyles.

The couple, whose parents were farmers, is no exception. Once political organizers in the nation’s capital, the two rural transplants dove into the same line of work supporting small farmers when they arrived.

“There are a lot of bad policies coming from the central government,” Bae says. “The strawberry seed farm helps fund protests in Seoul and other political activities.”

On the back of Bae’s truck, a bumper sticker reads, “No to opening the rice market.” The vest he wears is emblazoned with the words “No WTO,” a reference to their opposition to the trade organization’s role in opening Korea’s market for rice. Among small Korean farmers, free trade agreements relaxing the import of rice — which makes up 90 percent of the country’s grain production — is a chief concern.

“It’s hard to make a living as a farmer because the government keeps prices low,” says Choi Young-chul, head of the local farmers’ association in which Bae is a members. “If the price of rice goes up, the government imports rice from abroad to bring it back down.”

Over dinner at Bae's house that night, Choi recalls the time he and a group of farmers occupied a highway to protest opening the rice market. He boasts of bruises he has received from clashes against police.

The reason small farmers go to such lengths to protect their staple crop boils down to basic economics. Choi says when rice prices drop, making a living off rice becomes difficult, and this pushes farmers into other crops that do not have nearly as much demand in Korea, ultimately pitting farmer against farmer in a vicious battle to bankruptcy.

And so they fight, against large domineering bodies like the World Trade Organization, to keep from fighting each other.

“The life of a farmer is hard,” Choi repeats before taking a shot of soju. His fellow organizer Bae raises his glass in agreement and takes a swig.

Bae's home abuts a gas station run by the farmers’ association. The business initially served the same purpose that the strawberry seed farm does now, to raise funds for the organization. But efforts by the farmers to keep gas prices fair for customers meant the venture couldn’t make enough money, leading them to seek other sources of revenue, the latest project being the seed farm.

Nonetheless, the collectively run service station has had one powerful economic benefit, Bae says. It has kept other gas stations in the area honest by forcing them to compete against their prices.

When I ask them how small Korean farmers might, in similar vein, adjust to changing economic conditions by competing against cheaper imports, Bae's wife questions the premise of my suggestion.

“There shouldn’t be competition over food,” Ryu says. “Because it is necessary for survival.”

The next morning, we head over to a small garden where Ryu has been experimenting with a variety of crops. The modest piece of land is nestled at the foot of a mountain from which she says water flows toward her plot, a serendipitous gift from nature.

As we slowly make our way through the grounds, taking care not to step on soil with crops planted, she shows us the spot from which she picked the lettuce we ate the previous evening. Ryu invites us to smell the variety of herbs and vegetables she is growing, which she rotates based on the time of year.

Ryu engages in the work of seed saving, in which plants’ reproductive material are collected for use from year to year, to avoid purchasing seeds from large commercial manufacturers and to preserve local native seeds. These types of efforts, she notes, are often led by women.

Our final task at hand on this trip that Sunday morning is to help Ryu plant the next batch of crops. She gives us each a bag of bean plant seeds and demonstrates how we should set them, placing five or so on the ground and then covering them with soil.

Following along, I place a few seeds on my palm, bend down toward the ground and drop the seeds into a hole in the dirt. A cool breeze whistles past, and I get up to pause and let the wind wipe away the beads of sweat rolling down my face before continuing.

Under the mid-morning sun, I kneel back down toward the ground and touch my hands to the earth, savoring the moment as the soft soil runs through my fingers and covers the seeds that will eventually become fall’s harvest.

written by Gavin Huang 

[Note: The viewpoint expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the International Strategy Center.]