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Korean Farmers: The Value of Local Knowledge

By Erica Sweett

In October the ISC met with Korean farmers. We were welcomed into their homes, fed fresh food and given tours of rural and urban farmlands. They shared their stories and shared the struggles Korean farmers are facing. We experienced a side of Korea often shadowed by economic progress raising questions about what and who is valued within societies. Who is supported?  Whose knowledge is valid?

Today, Korea is known globally for its multinational tech companies, like Samsung and LG, but not long ago it was a country that survived almost solely on farming. In 1970, fifty percent of the populations were farmers. It’s safe to assume that farming was a significant part of Korean identity and culture during that time.

The Dignity of Continuity: Preserving Korean Farming and Food Sovereignty

By Ana Traynin

“Before, no matter how hard they worked or how little they earned, farmers had always had at least the assurance that they were doing the necessary work of the world, and that before them others (most likely their own parents and grandparents) had done the same work, which still others (most likely their own children and grandchildren) would do when they were gone. In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity of at least knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself….The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them…what they knew was passing from the world.”

Reflections from the Farm

During the weekend of October 11-12th, 2014, members of the ISC’s KHEP (Korean History, Economics, and History Program) team traveled to Sangju in Gyeongsangbukdo for a weekend of volunteer farming work with 승곡농촌체험마을 (the Seunggok Farming Experience Village), an organic farming village. Throughout the weekend, members harvested pears, red peppers, perilla, and buckwheat, as well as conversed with members of the Korean Peasants League and the Korean Women Peasants Association. Below are their reflections on the weekend experience:

The Privilege of Having Korean In-Laws

Having fairly conservative-minded Korean in-laws can be extremely frustrating, but I do sometimes forget the tremendous privilege it is to have a Korean side to my family.  It is an cultural experience every time I go and see them and gives me a great insight into a very traditional and rural Korean psyche.  On top of this, they really are genuine people and very kind to me.  I often feel very guilty about the amount of complaining I do.  Our differences cause a fair amount of problems, but their cause is nobody's fault, we just have ingrained cultural issues with one another that are not easily fixed.

Mosquito control for the region

The Korea Times has an article describing efforts to reduce mosquito numbers.  The main effort shown in photos is the use of pesticide fogging machines.

Newcomers to Korea are often horrified seeing children playing in the fog.  It looks fun and adults don’t seem to mind.  I don’t know what compounds are used but I can’t imagine that it is healthy.  R. Elgin at the Marmot’s Hole is particularly bothered by it: 1,2, ah, just follow the results of this search.  I’ve written about my distaste for it, too: 1, 2.

First planting for rice in 2012

I have discussed farming, and rice farming in particular, on this blog many times but am posting this as an actual log or journal entry.  In Gangwondo, I kept track of the first snowfall through my seven years in residence there and the record became more interesting as more data points were added.

On May 9th of 2010, I was involved in the first planting of rice. This year, it was may 5th, although there was more to do after we left.

The dinosaur museum in Goseong (and more)

Hi there!  Long time, no read.

I attempted the Nanowrimo project last month (the goal is to write 50,000 words- a novel – in one month) and didn’t get very far.  Still, that was the number one thing I was to do, so if I wasnt doing it, I couldn’t do things lower on the list either.

Anyway, I’m back.

December third was our wedding anniversary so like any middle-aged couple with a child, we did child-friendly stuff.  Heck, we all loved the dinosaur museum!

I sure didn’t love the trip to the museum.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been suffering from headaches occurring roughly every other day.  First, I went to a dentist but he found no problems.  Then I went to a hospital and I learned my cold has progressed to sinusitis and the infection in a sinus cavity has been causing my headaches.

Late October at the Farm


Six photos from a recent weekend at the farm.

First up are some persimmons.  I think they are on a broken branch so they have ripened faster than the other in the grove.  The next two show family digging caterpillars and worms out of the cabbage.  Man, from I saw in those cabbage, wash them before you eat!  The fourth pic is of a frog that must have been slacking as they were letting the caterpillars in. Tsk, Tsk.

Headlice isn’t so bad.

 My students often tell me they eat ‘lice’.

You can see a stroller in the background.  I think the reason Korean grandmothers love becoming grandmothers is that they will soon get a handy cart to carry their stuff.

That was a lot of rain!

I spent Saturday, a day of hellacious rain, at a hospital in Kimhae visiting with my Father-in-law.  He is home now; I’m not sure how serious his health problems were and don’t intend to discuss them here.

Anyway, in the evening, we drove through much deep water to Chinyoung, spent the night with in-laws and went to the farm house on Sunday morning.

At the house, we found this guy, and three others lose.How much rain do you need to have your home infested with eels?  I never did learn the actual reason for the eels, but we thought perhaps the mother-in-law bought them to make Chueotang (eel soup) with and some escaped.

Riverpark in Hwamyeong Dong



I visited North District, Busan last week and found a wonderful little river park. I particularly like the natural setting in this picture framed by the clear evidence of the city around it.

The water looked clear and clean and I guess it could come from the mountain in the background so maybe it is.  Hmm, by the reasoning I just used here, this river winding through a city may be cleaner than one going through farmland.

The bird below was very close to some middle school girls and I thought for a long time that it was a statue.  Then a girl threw stones at it and it flew away, only to return to the same spot.

Call me Indy

It is remarkable what sorts of pottery shards you can find in farmers fields.

Here are two shots of one piece I found:

I have to admit that I don’t know how old this find is.  I’ve watched my wife step on or over several others like it over the years.  I guess if it is recent, it is trash – the value comes with age.

Well, this one below might have immediate value.  I have no idea how it got there:

plans and concerns

I recently started reading “Cognitive Surplus“, a book about how people can create collaboratively online.  The thesis of the book is that for years, TV demanded that we only absorb media.  Modern media -delivered by the internet – is more of a give-and-take* proposition. We can do more that receive information; we can create it, too.

Since starting the book, which I enjoy, I haven’t created anything online although my time online hasn’t decreased much.

Again with the farming pictures

The end of November is a pretty desolate one at a farm.

Is cabbage a flower? By the end of the weekend, I had begun to love these guys.

flailing away at the farm

I’d read about flails in history class and a character or two of mine in Dungeons and Dragons used them.  I’d even described some rookie swimmers as flailing about in the pool.

Last weekend, I finally got to try one for myself.

On the farm

I spent the weekend of Nov 6-7 at the in-law’s farm.  The work was fine, although I was a little stiff and very tired on Monday, but the house was a little dusty and my allergies made me eager to get home.

Click to bigify the photos below.

Here, my brother-in-law is driving a gyeong-oon-gi with my wife and son and a load of bean plants in the trailer.

My son and I love to see the little animals.

Falling from the rib-breaking tree and hitting every branch

It is no laughing matter that my father-in-law fell from a tree and broke some ribs but there must be some way to work that cliche in.

On Monday, my f-i-l was collecting persimmon, when he fell. Now, he was hurt and seriously to need to stay in the hospital for a few days, but don’t think he fell from a tall pine or maple or the like.  Horticulturists could better explain, but as I understand it, you clip the main growth bud of a young tree and major branches grow instead.  This way you can have many more fruit-bearing branches and all close to the ground.

So, he fell and probably hit a branch on the way.  He went home, and probably went to bed early.  The next morning, he was in great pain so he decided to visit a hospital.  There he was diagnosed with broken ribs, admitted to a room and had his lower chest wrapped.  I suspect he was given pain-killers.

That didn’t take long

I prepared ahead – albeit insufficiently – for November and Nanowrimo.  I’ve had an idea for a novel for some time now and have wanted to try writing it.  I have written short fiction and essays short and long for this blog, a few magazines and my students.  I was ready, I felt, to extend myself…

No point in being wordy now.  It will take an extreme effort of will to continue at this point.

Oh, Nanowrimo, for those unwilling to follow the link, is short for national Novel Writing Month.  The organization is international now, so the name is both cumbersome and incorrect.  Anyway, the goal for Nanowrimo is to type 50,000 words during the month of November.  Quantity is important and quality is not.  This makes sense to me as the first step is a sort of brainstorming, with the expectation of massive revisions coming afterward.

Cabbage and frogs

I’m back early from a trip to the farm.  Yesterday, I helped weed a cabbage patch.  It was a great job, because I was given a sharp hoe and could stand most of the time.  I just reached under the cabbage and scraped the soil around the side, scything several weeds down.  There were some bugs in the weeds and a few leaves looked well-gnawed, but the cabbage had defenders as well:

rural rooftop solar energy collectors

My understanding is that the warmth of the building extends the growing season somewhat for these squashes.

a weekend farming – second rice planting

In fact, I missed the second planting because my university had a ‘make-up classes’ day on Saturday.  I would like to comment further on the Saturday classes but fear I might be too specific and too negative for a public blog.

Anyway, on sunday morning, I planted beens with my brother- and father-in-law.  Here, the father-in-law is preparing the tools.

Boating on Buddha’s Birthday

This year, we didn’t visit temples or eat the free temple lunch.  I don’t know much about the western and lunar calendars or if Buddha’s Birthday is determined by a yet a third calendar, but at least this time, my wife’s eldest uncle’s birthday was on the same day and, having moved to Busan, we were now close enough to visit him on his birthday.  Unlike the Buddha,he is actually able to appreciate our visit.

It could have been a boring time at the farm for the kids, but my brother-in-law told us an activity he used to do with his brother: Boating down the irrigation ditch.

Planting rice -the early stages.

I have now seen a significant fraction of rice’s life cycle.  Well, I’ve seen rice in fields, and been involved in the second planting and the final harvest.  Today, and last Sunday, I helped out a little with the first planting.

Farming and farm life

I don’t often complain about my job* and never after visiting my parents-in-law.  They are settled and comfortable as farmers, having farmed all their lives.  I help out when I can but I treat my short stints of farm labour in a very different way than they must do.  when I arrive on a Saturday morning, I am eager to get to work, get it done and return home, or somewhere, to relax.  for them, it is one day of many; possibly fulfilling and interesting, possibly drudgery, I don’t know.  I do know they aren’t looking at it as “Get ‘er done and get out of here.”  It would take some serious effort for me to become a full-time farmer, even if the idea of having a large and time-consuming vegetable garden does seem more and more interesting  and something I want to do.

In the Persimmon Grove

Another weekend, another day at the farm.

This time, we were spreading fertilizer around the sweet persimmon trees.

(click to bigify pictures)

Each bag was 20kg and that’s not that heavy, except for the terrain.  Each persimmon tree has been cut or pruned (what am I, an arbourist?) so that it grows wide, not tall.  To travel more than three metres, one must duck and twist to fit between the branches.  I had a bit of a cold, so I was trying to keep my head high so my nose wouldn’t run all day.

planting potatoes

I spent the day with in-laws planting a field of potatoes.  The parents-in-law had started the work yesterday, so we finished adding the potatoes, spraying fertilizer and covering the furrows with plastic.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

I wrote earlier (edit: I wrote earlier, on a different computer, and haven’t posted here yet) about the factories moving onto the farmland.  Here is an example.

Hmm. I have no photos of actually planting the potatoes – too boring, I guess.  Here is the vat of fertilizer on the back of a kyeonoonggi.  Oh, a kyeonoonggi is a tow-wheeled tractor and some models have a pump for this kind of work.

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