Community Supported Agriculture Part 2: More Fun with Fresh Veggies

By Taryn Assaf

Summer can be a difficult time for farmers. Weather can be unpredictable, with high temperatures, too much or too little rainfall; crop eating pests are at their peak. That hasn’t stopped the gorgeous leafy greens and fragrant herbs from growing on Gachi farms. Most people would be weary of buying greens with little holes in them, bruised fruits, or yellowing herbs. We prefer perfection: our greens rich in colour, glistening in the supermarket spotlights; our fruits shining and vibrant; and our veggies without a spot of dirt. You’d be hard pressed to find any evidence that most produce ever existed in an ecosystem. How much food goes to waste simply because its appearance is deemed less than perfect?

The items in my Gachi box are not perfect- and that’s what I love about them. I can feel the carrots being pulled out of the earth as I wash the dirt off them; I can see the rows of leafy greens swaying in the wind as I examine their little holes; I can feel the pride in the harvest of herbs when I receive such plush portions. My relationship to food is changing. I used to be a huge food waster. I was guilty of being afraid of the less than perfect produce. But, I grew wiser, and learned that even a yellowing piece of lettuce can be eaten in a salad and not take away from the freshness or taste. I learned that a bruised apple or orange doesn’t foreshadow the taste of the flesh and that I, like so many others, had little idea what food actually looks like.

I’ve just received my fourth box, but this post will detail some of the items I made with the vegetables from my third box. To reiterate some key points about this package:

  • The produce is not enough on its own, but is a great foundation for the weeks’ meals
  • You will need to supplement with other items to create well-balanced meals
  • The element of surprise really incites creativity in the kitchen
  • The food is seasonal, meaning you’ll likely encounter produce you’ve never dealt with before, which also means you may have to do a little research before meal time (hence this post!)

OK! On to the food (again, pics are NOT FOODIE STATUS. I’m about making good tasting food that looks like a normal person cooked it, but moreso I can’t bear to waste time making my food look good for a photo when I could be eating it). In my third box, I received:

Eggplant, onions (not pictured), green peppers, a variety of greens (perilla leaf, arugula, salad greens), buchu (garlic chive), blueberries, six eggs, two cucumbers and a bunch of arugula.

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I have a bunch of portioned hanu (Korean beef) in my freezer that has been waiting to become a good topper. I used to love the combination of steak and arugula when I was living in Canada, so the first thing I made was a steak and arugula salad.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI plumped up the salad with some of the other leafy greens I was given and made a light, lemony vinaigrette. I added some cherry tomatoes from a previous box for good measure, and topped it with a juicy, seared steak.

Arugula is an amazing green. It’s peppery and fragrant and has a strong flavour. It’s amazing on top of pizzas (proscuitto, parm, mozzarella and arugula is my favorite), in or around anything with steak (steak sandwiches/salads), as the star of the show in an Italian style niciose salad (with lemon, salt, and olive oil dressing and topped with tuna), or even just tossed in lemon juice and placed on top of a piece of fried pork cutlet.

I was so excited about the eggplant. I love to use eggplant in almost anything because it is so versatile; I usually use it in place of animal proteins because of its thick, meaty texture- that means stews, sauces, sandwiches and other meals I would usually prepare with meat get eggplant instead. So I went ahead and prepared a Thai green curry with eggplant (and literally every other vegetable I could use up)  and an eggplant parm inspired gnocchi (the gnocchi I got off iHerb.com). Both lasted me a few meals each. I contemplated making baba ganoush, but opted instead for a couple meals with more vitality.

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Cucumber is so common that I doubted whether or not I should include it in this post. However, I got really excited about making one of my favorite summer salads: salatat laban wa kh’yar (in Arabic), or, cucumber yogurt salad. It was really difficult for me to find the right yogurt for this recipe (if anyone knows where to order quality, preferably home made greek yogurt, hit me up!) so the yogurt I used was not as thick as this salad usually calls for. There are five ingredients here: cucumber, plain yogurt, dried mint (you can use fresh) garlic and salt. All to taste. Since the yogurt was runny, I only just coated the cucumber, but normally the bowl would be full.

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My absolute favorite Korean side dish are pickled vegetables. When I saw onion and green pepper in the box, that’s immediately what came to mind. Together with some garlic that I received the week before, I made my very own. I combined everything in one container, boiled the pickling brine and poured it over top. I let it sit for a few days in the fridge before tasting, so all the brine could really soak in. Since I like my pickled veggies a little sweeter and more sour than what I’ve tasted in the restaurants, I added a little more vinegar and sugar than the recipe called for: 2 cups water, one cup soy sauce, and somewhere between a quarter and a half cup each of vinegar and sugar.

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Finally, I used all the perilla leaves I received to make perilla leaf pesto. I’ve been eating pesto or some version of it for 2 months now thanks to Gachi, and I’m not complaining (is there such a thing as too much pesto? No. There isn’t). It’s the exact same recipe as basil pesto, except sub perilla leaves for basil. It tastes very similar, and the perilla leaf flavour, usually overpowering, comes out subtly and smoothly. I tried it a variety of different ways: hot with whole wheat linguine, for a more western feel, and cold with buckwheat noodles, topped with cucumber and eaten with a side of pickled radish, for a more summery Korean noodle feel. Both were great. I didn’t take any pictures, because it looks exactly like basil pesto, (which isn’t very interesting) and everyone knows what that looks like.

What came of the blueberries and buchu? I mixed them into random meals at random times.

So I guess I’m still very much enamored with my community supported agriculture. The box I received this week is even more exciting, challenging and inspiring than what was featured in this post, and I look forward to continuing my culinary endeavors and sharing them. Have you subscribed yet?

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Community supported agriculture: is it worth it?

By Taryn Assaf

If you’ve been thinking about purchasing a share in a CSA, then you likely already know what they are and how they function. If you don’t (from wikipedia: far more eloquent than me):

“A CSA is an alternative, locally based economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA also refers to a particular network or association of individuals who have pledged to support one or more local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers pay at the onset of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they periodically receive shares of produce.”

“CSAs generally focus on the production of high quality foods for a local community, often using organic or biodynamic farming methods, and a shared risk membership–marketing structure. This kind of farming operates with a much greater degree of involvement of consumers and other stakeholders than usual — resulting in a stronger consumer-producer relationship. The core design includes developing a cohesive consumer group that is willing to fund a whole season’s budget in order to get quality foods.”

CSA theory was developed around three main goals:

“· New forms of property ownership: the idea that land should be held in common by a community through a legal trust, which leases the land to farmers

  • New forms of cooperation: the idea that a network of human relationships should replace the traditional system of employers and employees
  • New forms of economy: that the economy should not be based on increasing profit, but should be based on the actual needs of the people and land involved in an enterprise

Is it worth it to buy your produce from a CSA? If you believe in this economic model of agriculture, then you may very well think so. I had been wondering for some time, and finally decided to buy a share in Gachi (formerly WWOOF) CSA. I chose the basic couple’s basket, which delivers a weekly share of eggs, one type of fruit and a variety of vegetables to your door. You can expect different produce every week, and the produce changes seasonally.

I asked the folks at Gachi if they could send me one box every two weeks, as opposed to one a week, and they happily obliged. I’ll be receiving a box bi-weekly for the next three months, and I’d like to share my thoughts, recipes and reasons for purchasing with you so that you can decide for yourself whether you’d like to support community agriculture.

Spoiler: It’s totally worth it.

To begin, Gachi is not the only CSA offering delivery in Korea, although it is the only strictly English one doing so. You can read about a couple other options in my previous post: Korean Peasants Sow the Seeds of Nation’s Food Sovereignty

Why did I choose Gachi? Above all, because they offered the easiest English option available. With my limited Korean skills, it was much easier for me to access than the other options out there. However, it is relatively limited in terms of items to choose from: while the selection is fairly good, (they offer add-ons of meat, fruit, juice, snacks and bread) they still lack options for seasonings, sauces, and processed foods (they do offer some, just not as many as other groups). However, if you know where to go for quality sides and seasonings, then Gachi is still, in my opinion, the best option for English speakers.

On to the food.

Note: If you don’t cook at home often (like, every day) this is probably way, way too much food for one person per week. Hence the two-week option.

In my first box, I received: 6 eggs, cherry tomatoes, arugula (rocket), 2 cucumbers, 1 zucchini, 2 heads of iceberg lettuce, about 2 cups of basil, a variety of ssam (lettuce and cabbage leaves), green gochu peppers and bok choy. There was green everywhere and I loved it. (apologies, my pictures are NOT of professional foodie status; but trust the meals tasted yum)

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No, I didn’t just eat salad every day, though I definitely could have. Over the two weeks, I managed to use the greens fairly diversely, along with other ingredients I already had to make my meals more balanced. I’m not a vegetarian, but I absolutely whipped up some vegan/vegetarian delights, although some of what I’m going to share with you contains animal protein.

The first thing I made was a large pot of dwenjang soup with the bok choy and green gochu. I added mushrooms that I bought from the market. No pics, but it was enough to feed 6 guests I had for lunch. I could have easily split it up for smaller portions of any soup or stir-fry.

I used some zucchini to make zoodles (zucchini noodles) and whipped up a salmon dish. The zoodles were mixed with carrots and stewed tomatoes, both of which I had lying around. I seared the salmon in lemon butter:

FullSizeRenderI used the rest of the zucchini to make zucchini chips.

First thing I thought of when I saw the basil: pesto (recipe here. note: you can sub pine nuts with walnuts and pecorino cheese with parm or romano cheese). 2 cups of basil made a load of pesto: I ate pesto pasta for 3 meals this week, and froze the rest. In my first pesto pasta, I sautéed the cherry tomatoes; in my second, I mixed some greens in, and in the final, I seared some Hanu as a nice topper:

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I used the remainder of the basil, some ssam leaves, green gochu and some cucumber as an inspiration for vegan rice paper rolls, accompanied by some peanut sauce. I added carrot, mushrooms, and mint that I had in my fridge.

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I used my now wilting greens to make a warm salad. First, I sautéed some onion and garlic in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Then, I added the greens and let them wilt. I tossed some roasted potatoes in for good measure as well. (Tip for your greens: wash them immediately and then transfer them into an airtight container. They’ll keep for longer in the fridge this way)

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The eggs I ate nearly immediately: 6 eggs was not enough. I did make a lovely kyeran jjim (egg stew), though.

All in all, I feel great about supporting Gachi farmers. I’m (partially) engaging in a model of agriculture I believe in, and the food is damn good. The box is not meant as a total substitute for your diet. You need to supplement in order to create well balanced meals, although it is a wonderful foundation that inspired me to be more creative with my cooking. I can’t wait to see what comes next week! I hope this post has made the decision easier for some, and that it has introduced others to a more responsible food system. But to everyone, no matter what you choose, I must say, bon-appetit!

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 Korean War, US food aid, along with neoliberal policies and bilateral agreements led not only to a decline in agriculture but also to one in rural communities and indigenous traditions and cultures. In the 1970s, in response to US economic pressure, the Korean government implemented Green Revolution agricultural practices. The Green Revolution modernized farming in Korea and educated farmers on technological advances in farming. It also increased the use of fertilizers and introduced new seeds.

The Green Revolution proved to be unsustainable. This “revolution” stripped farmers of their right to land, seeds and farming methods. Farmers traded their traditions and small family farms to buy fertilizers and heavy machinery.  The increased cost of these new technologies forced many farmers to switch from growing a diversity of crops for domestic consumption to growing cash crops. As a result Korea has become more reliant on global food corporations. Today over 60 percent of their food comes from imports. (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.1)

Near the end of the 1980s, the government was dedicated to manufacturing and neoliberal free trade policies. Many farming communities were further destroyed as the government focused its energy and resources on increasing production and maximizing profit. The Korean government discredited and devalued its farming communities and left them vulnerable to global markets where they stood no chance of competing. By 2010, farmers were only 7 percent of the population.

Life as a farmer is unpredictable. Weather, bugs, disease and seeds are some factors that affect harvests.  Farmers have to be resourceful and resilient. Yet, the politico- economic forces they confront are more powerful than any natural disaster or pest. Korean farmers are working hard to preserve their local knowledge and wielding it against neoliberal driven policies.

Korean farmers are resisting the decline in local farming. The Korean Peasants’ League (KPL) and The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA) are fighting against neoliberal free trade agreements in solidarity with farmers around the world. They are initiating back to the land movements and are sharing their indigenous knowledge and traditions; they are reviving rural communities and creating a new collective conscience that emphasizes local self-sufficient agriculture within Korea; they are giving power and control back to the people. The results are tastier food and happier, healthier communities.

KWPA is helping empower women farmers; they are protecting indigenous seeds and building relationships with local consumers. Older women farmers are sharing their knowledge with the younger farming generation. The older generation is not educated in the way modern society appreciates. “Most of them are illiterate, but experts of indigenous agriculture” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p. 2). Their deep connection to the land is vital to the future of local, traditional farming methods. The KWPA is a progressive movement that recognizes the importance of the past. “The young generation makes it possible to reconsider the role and value of women peasants, who had been undervalued and excluded from the capitalized market economy system in the process of modernization” (Jeong Kim, 2013, p.3). The Korean government deemed the older generation of women farmers as obsolete and their knowledge as meaningless. The KWPA is building a space where the value of these women can be realized and their knowledge can be used to improve the future of local communities.

The KWPA’s Sister’s Garden Plot slogan is: “An honest producer and a caring consumer: Together we can solve the problem”. They are simplifying the process food goes through before reaching consumers’ tables.  Their pamphlet states that, “As consumers increase, rather than increase the scale of production, it is better to create a larger community in which producers and consumers meet.” They focus on local, seasonal farming – which is cheaper – and better for the environment. The food they grow goes directly back to the community. They have the freedom to grow food more sustainably because they’re controlled by their local market not by the restraints of the global market.

Capitalism can foster innovation and can efficiently boost economies. But it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Capitalism is independent of culture and community and displaces and devalues local knowledge. Multinational companies are protected by conflicting laws and trade agreements that limit access to local food and discourage localized, sustainable farming. Under capitalism everything is disposable and replaceable. Economic competition disrupts the natural cycle of growing, harvesting and producing food. Korea started growing cash crops because it’s economically more efficient. They became more reliant on food exports not because it’s practical – but because of trade laws and barriers that dictate what governments deem important.

We already have the necessary tools to create sustainable food sources. We have the farmers and their knowledge; what we need is a structural shift within society that supports and encourages local farmers. The needs of the global market differ greatly from those of the local markets. Cooperative communities need to be valued over the profitability of capitalism. We need to stop allowing multinational corporations and the governments who support them decide what and who should be valued within societies.

The battle facing farmers in Korea isn’t just a localized issue- it’s a global one. It is a collective struggle that affects all of us. Korean farmers have many roles. They are teachers, activists and protectors of their land and culture. Farmers, more than anyone, are aware of the grave dangers facing our planet. Farmers are a vital part of societies and their voices need to not just be heard, but listened to and valued.

Bibliography:

Hyo Jeong Kim. (2013, September 14-15) Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Food Sovereignty: Experiences from KWPA’s Movement in South Korea. Paper presented at Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, International Conference, Yale University (1-19).

The Dignity of Continuity: Preserving Korean Farming and Food Sovereignty

By A.T.

“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.”

  • Wendell Berry Jayber Crow

American farmer, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry, wrote these lines to describe the plight of farmers in early 1960s rural Kentucky. In the post-war United States, economic growth and industrialization were rapidly leading to the decline of agricultural society. This model of development that devalues farmers would soon be exported and take root across the Pacific Ocean, in the much smaller land of South Korea. The results have been no less destructive.

After the Korean War, the country faced unprecedented levels of poverty. In 1970, the dawn of the second decade of his rule, president Park Chung-hee launched the Saemaeul (New Village) Movement and the Green Revolution to firmly kickstart Korea’s economic leap forward. The focus shifted sharply to exports of high-tech goods and imports of basic foodstuffs, effectively leaving Korean farmers – then still comprising half the population – in the dust.

Flash forward to 2014, Korean farmers – who now make up only 6% of the population – are facing one of the worst crises in their history. Over the summer, the government announced that this would be the last year of rice import quotas and 2015 would see the full opening of the Korean rice market. Competition with foreign rice growers is believed to lead to the collapse of Korean rice farming. [1]

Despite the dire situation that they face, politicized Korean farmers keep going because they “believe in the righteousness of their struggle.”[2] The Korean Peasants’ League and the Korean  Women’s Peasant Association are prepared to keep Korean farming alive by any means at their disposable. In October 2014, the ISC team worked alongside leaders of these two groups and heard their stories firsthand.

For me, it was a lucky time to participate in the ISC’s two farming-theme weekends. After a four-day school trip of following the footsteps of the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Revolution in Jeollabukdo (link to the ISC’s coverage of this historical event), I felt well-equipped to connect history with the present-day struggles. Our first stop was Sangju, Gyeongsangbukdo. The Seunggok Farming Experience Village is a “Back to the Land” center, a place where city people can get back to agricultural roots. Here, we were put to useful work, picking the famous Sangju (pears), threshing 들게 (perilla) and clearing an entire red-tinged field of 메밀 (buckwheat).

The work itself was meaningful, but more so were the informal discussions we had with the farmers over drinks and out in the fields. Particularly telling was the relationship between our host Jo Won Hee, Sangju’s Korean Peasant League secretary, and his mother, a life-long farmer. While overtaking us in the perilla field on a peaceful Sunday morning, this strong, friendly, outgoing elderly lady warned us “not to go into farming.” After a Saturday night of lively beer-fuelled discussion about the vital importance of food sovereignty, it was a huge reality check – farming is hard work and most farmers would rather spare their kids of it. Go to the city, get educated, get a city job. That seems to be the mantra.

Jo Won Hee and his female counterpart of Sangju’s Korean Women’s Peasant Association were university student activists during the 1980s democratization movement. Against their families’ expectations, their paths brought them right back to the farms where they came from. Seeing the preservation of farmers’ dignity as a vital struggle in Korea, they made the choice to pour their activist spirit into building a strong, independent agricultural community. With the recent protests in Seoul against the opening of the rice market, Jo remembers the days of “holding a molotov cocktail in one hand and a pipe in the other” while confronting the police. He says he is too old for that now, but he dedicates his time to advocating for the rights of farmers to keep their independence from big companies and foreign governments.

In Korea today, as in many places around the world, raising up farmers is inextricably linked with raising up women. In fact, women’s cross-generational efforts seem to hold the key to keep farming a living force. Although women have always contributed the lion’s share of farm work and have taken responsibility for seed selection and preservation, patriarchal society has denied them property and social rights. In response to this state of agriculture, The Korean Women’s Peasant Association was founded in 1989. In 2012, they won international recognition as winners of La Via Campesina’s biodiversity award for their work to preserve Korean indigenous seeds. Feminist and women’s studies PhD student Kim Hyo Jong studies the intricate ways in which “KWPA activists are working together with hal-mo-ni (grandmothers) to develop the indigenous seed preservation movement as the food sovereignty movement.”[3]

Young women farmers learning about seeds from their elders is just one way in which women are taking matters into their own hands. The KWPA’s version of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), 언니네텃밭 My Sister’s Garden Plot, has achieved success in empowering women to grow and sell their food directly to consumers. With fifteen plots now active in communities around Korea, this movement has the potential to sustain small farmers.

The aging population of farmers around the world and the unwillingness of many young people to go into the fields poses a severe challenge, but Korea’s peasant movement is devising innovative ways to move forward. The dignity of continuity is not yet a lost cause.

[1] http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/655935.html

[2] Interview, Sangju Sister’s Garden Plot, Korean Women Peasants’ Association

[3] http://www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/foodsovereignty/pprs/71_HyoJeong_2013.pdf

An Open Letter to Farmers

By Kellyn Gross

An Open Letter to My Hosts at Jiam:

Annyeong haseyo. Hello. My name is Kellyn. I visited your community last month along with other expats as part of the ISC media team.  Shin Yong Cheol, your family welcomed us into its home and to volunteer on the small farm that you started with the lily grower, Hyeong Taek Bae—who has a wonderfully mischievous smile and an infectious laugh.  Your wives fed us like royalty, and I slept on a warm ondol floor next to your gracious wife and only infant son.  He woke us at times with his cries of hunger, as babies are inclined to do. But no matter. Being privy to your intimate lives was educational.  It was humbling.

Not many personal stories were shared during that weekend, for which I understand. Farming is your business, and we had a language barrier.  You utilized our free labor as much as possible because anything helps the bottom line in your precarious line of work.  Conducting interviews about the socioeconomic aspects of Korean farming seemed rather unfitting given that we needed to meticulously plant 20, then 21, then 23 rows of bok choi starts in your greenhouse.  Growing crops is difficult and often unrewarding work.  You don’t need an interview to determine that, but to discover it firsthand.

Nonetheless, I was fine to end planting that first day and join you all for a homemade dak galbi dinner.  The Korean Peasants League leaders gave encouraging introductions, and the farmers’ words were eloquent even before the soju started flowing.  I was reminded not to romanticize the plight of Korean farmers, as much as just see you for who you are: mothers and fathers; daughters and sons; sisters and brothers; wives, husbands and friends trying your best to put food on the table and enjoy life’s simple beauty.

Connection and simplicity was what I needed at that time.  I’d like to share why.

I was irritable that Sunday evening following our farm visit because I was hungry and tired from lack of sleep and a hangover.  But my irritability was quickly replaced with anger due to my job.  I arrived at my middle school on Monday as I usually do, sleepy but ready to seize the day. My students are challenging, so I must rely on sheer moxie to engage them. Yet even more than usual, my students were unmoved. My generally helpful co-teacher was even apathetic, and my schedule was changed without notice.  As the week progressed, my work difficulties multiplied at my elementary and high schools as well.  Two days of canceled classes for Sports Day were reinstated, so I had to teach classes on a whim with no co-teachers.  Three open classes were sprung on me, and I had to produce one open-class lesson plan in short order.  Subsequently, I couldn’t keep up with any of my district-coordinator duties or my articles for the ISC media team.

People’s attitudes and these unforeseen changes made my work week maddening, but the real reason for my anger was what was implicit in these situations.  I was angry because for you and the old women working on your farms, you might not have had the choice to do such manual labor.  Living through the 1930s or the 1970s as children, you might not have had the choice to do anything else as adults given your backgrounds. And I don’t doubt that you have seen and lived through some incredibly challenging ordeals as farmers. Incredibly.  Yet you continue to tend your crops at sunrise each and every day in order to feed your family members and put a roof over their heads.

On the contrary, I had the disheartening experience to stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers who were born in the 1990s and are oblivious to the choices they do have over their futures.  They have choices, and yet they are more concerned with k-pop and cellphone games then being engaged in their learning or their society–complaining to me about being tired from staying up too late watching TV dramas. Tired, I thought. Try standing in a greenhouse for up to 10 hours a day as an 82-year-old. 

Even when I broached the subject of our farm visit and the implications of rice imports flooding into Korea in 2014, my co-teacher was uneasy and wouldn’t interpret for my students.  It was too much for me in light of visiting you, and it reinforced what I have always struggled with during my time here—and what I will struggle with when I return to the USA: social inequality.

Teachers I work with in public schools are far removed from the daily lives of farmers, even if we largely commute to work in rural areas.  Some colleagues grew up poor on farms themselves, and yet they tell me that they don’t concern themselves with agricultural issues.  For my middle school students living in an insular ski-resort town, they are ignorant and ambivalent about the social and economic sacrifices generations have made before and for them. Complacency is what is taught, so it seems, because their very educators are complacent.

Because most of my coworkers became teachers not to inspire, but to be hired into a profession that is both lucrative and secure.  And in the past almost three years of my living in Gangwondo–my working with 13 different Korean English teachers–I have only stepped into a co-teacher’s home on three occasions. We hadn’t known you, Mr. Shin, more than five minutes when you opened your home to us and fed everyone lavishly for two days.  Again, I’m humbled by that experience.  The generosity of you and your friends reinforced my belief that farmers and the working class are the backbone, conscience, hope and lifeblood of society.

This is not without my own dilemma and feeling of shame.

When I was dipping each and every bok choi seedling into the cold water tubs in preparation for planting, Mr. Hyeong said to me: How much money do you make? I think you make more money than us farmers. You are rich in Korea.  My answer was probably unsatisfactory, Mr. Hyeong, but I tried.

You see, I’ve been asked this question too numerous to count in Korea.  Each time I feel ashamed, but I can’t deny a response.  I’m answering truthfully when I say that I make about 2.3 million won each month after taxes.  Wealth eludes me in the scheme of things, but it’s a fact. My salary here is higher as a foreigner than the average monthly income of 1.5 million won for Koreans.  This privilege is a consequence of my being an American English-speaker.  And I can’t really complain when said privilege affords me far more opportunities than most in the world.

Yet, I’m human. I hurt as a teacher when I’m unsuccessful in the classroom. I hurt when I can’t relate to my coworkers because of differing values.  I hurt when I witness inequality because I’m so intrinsically a part of it.  My intention was to make some cash, travel and teach in Korea.  I also wanted a cultural exchange, and to do right by my host country while enjoying a sojourn. But it hasn’t always been what I expected, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Nonetheless, meeting people like you in Jiam keeps me sane in Korea.  People like you give me hope and courage to do better by myself and by others.  And in the case of the lily farmer, Hyeong Taek Bae, people like you give me flowers.  And they blossom long after our time together, reminding me of the dignity of life and the value of hard work.  Kamsahamnida.  Thank you.

Respectfully yours,

Kellyn Gross

 

Why Solidarity is Important to Korean Farmers

Lee Gwangsuk is the President of the Korean Peasant League (KPL) in South Korea.  This interview took place on the day of a mobilisation organised by the KPL against the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the USA. Gwangsuk talks about why he joined the KPL, his role as President, what the KPL is trying to achieve and how they go about this.  They have had some small but significant successes at local level. This is an inspirational story about the value of peasant solidarity in facing the challenges that neoliberalism has on small scale farming.

What does the year 1894 have to do with Korea’s food security?

by Taryn Assaf


A Call to Arms

The people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled. Heedless of their responsibility for sustaining the state and providing for its people, the officials build lavish residences in the countryside, scheming to ensure their own well-being at the expense of the resources of the nation. How can this be viewed as proper? We are wretched village people far from the capital, yet we feed and clothe ourselves with the bounty from the sovereign’s land. We cannot sit by and watch our nation perish. The whole nation is as one, its multitudes united in their determination to raise the righteous standard of revolt, and to pledge their lives to sustain the state and provide for the livelihood of the people. However startling the action we take today may seem, you must not be troubled by it. For as we felicitously live out the tranquil years ahead, each man secure in his occupation – when all the people can enjoy the blessings of benevolent kingly rule, how immeasurably joyful will we be!

This proclamation was written by the leaders of the Tonghak peasant army, a group that formed out of the Tonghak religion. It was first sent out to Korean peasant farmers in 1894, and it embodies the struggles of farmers at the time and foreshadows the problems to be faced by farmers in the future. It is a call to arms- an ultimatum. It says, we can not allow ourselves to be exploited by the rich any longer. We can not sit idly by while our brothers and sisters are forced deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. We will not allow the rich to diminish our humanly worth by taking advantage of our livelihoods. We must fight this oppression, or die because of it.  Who were these peasants and what led them to the point of rebellion?

The Tonghak religion formed in the 1860’s in opposition to the ideals and exploitative nature of the yangban (the ruling class) and foreign influence in Korea, most notably Western missionaries and Japanese merchants that threatened the Korean peasant’s way of life. It combined aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shamanism and rejected Western Catholicism. In addition to its religious foundations, Tonghak was a social movement that advocated for the improvement of peasants’ conditions, an end to the exploitation of peasants by the yangban and reform of the corrupt government. The religion and its ideals became very popular among the peasantry, as it strongly advocated equality among all people (the religion stated that even man and God were created equal once man understood the equality of all people). Peasant farmers in central Jeolla province strongly identified with this belief and the religion and movement as a whole. The peasants here were lucky to farm on what was considered to be Korea’s agricultural goldmine, and yet they were concurrently suffocating with debt from especially unsympathetic tax policies enacted by the local government—money which went straight into the pockets of the local Governor. For instance, exploitive miscellaneous taxes were applied to anticipated rice shortages, anticipated rice spillages and anticipated loss of rice during transport; a 10 percent interest was applied to loans for grain at the time of repayment; and Governors falsified records and distorted numerical figures on grain repayments. These abuses were so detrimental that 30-40% of all peasant households in 1893 did not have enough grain to last for 4 months after harvest and 70% of the population was unable to stock food for the entire year. The shared oppressive experience and a vision for a just and democratic future  led to the Tonghak peasant rebellion of 1894. The Tonghak peasant army was initially successful in its mission for change- they temporarily occupied the city of Jeonju and negotiated a truce with the government on the condition that economic and social reforms be implemented.  However, the pause in conflict that came with negotiations eventually worked against the Tonghak army.  The Korean government had called in both the Chinese and Japanese forces to help quell the Tonghak army, the momentary ceasefire giving way to the Sino-Japanese War and the eventual Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Tonghak saw and understood that their way of life as farmers, their right to having a decent livelihood, and their dignity as human beings was being exploited for profit. They understood that the government was not on the side of the people, and was not interested in being a government that the common people supported. They opposed upper-class practices that benefitted the wealthy and strangled those below them. They fought for a future they believed in, one characterized by equality for all people. A future where everyone had the right to a decent living, and where the prerogative of one class was not maintained at the expense of another. The same sentiments can be felt by farmers globally today, who in the face of WTO agreements, IMF and World Bank conditionalities, and multinational agribusiness, are still struggling in much the same way as their Tonghak brothers and sisters. Increasing dependency on foreign food markets, decreasing food self sufficiency and security, decreasing farmer populations, decreasing arable land and fertile soil and increasing debt among small farmers are some of the problems facing the agricultural sector. The human right to farm is under seige, and thus the livelihoods of millions of people in the world today.

Tonghak Today

The agricultural sector in Korea is in crisis. Farmers are being suffocated by debt and have their hands tied by trade agreements. Food sovereignty is defined by Via Campesina as the “human right for all peoples and nations to grow food in ways that are culturally, ecologically and economically appropriate for them.” Korea’s food sovereignty is being threatened. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living from farming alone; as the influx of foreign agricultural imports increases, domestic products fall out of competition and the market becomes increasingly dependent on those imports. As a nation’s food sovereignty decreases, its food self-sufficiency (the degree to which a country is self-sufficient in producing its own food) also decreases. For instance, as of 2004, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 25.3%. However, taking rice out of the equation, the number drops to an appalling three percent. This is due to the opening of Korea’s markets to global agricultural products. Rice is currently the only product not open to the global market. However, Korea’s rice sector is schedule to open in 2014. Currently, Korea imports 90% of its food products and is the fifth largest importer of U.S agricultural products. The same trends can be found in most countries worldwide that have entered into a WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AOA) or a free trade agreement with the U.S. Once an agreement is ratified, a country must open its economy to foreign products. And with the U.S. and European Union’s markets already completely saturated and heavily subsidized by about $1 billion a day, peasant and family farmers around the world without similar subsidies are simply unable to compete. The AOA has become a new form of imperialism over small farmers worldwide, as it has shifted the control of global food security into the hands of big agribusiness and corporate elites. Since Korea’s opening of its markets in 1995, the state of farming and of farmers has sufficiently declined. For instance, in 1970, Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate was 80.5%; its farming population has decreased from over 14 million in 1970 to just over 3 million in 2004; and debt increased four fold to an average of $30,000 per household in 2003. With the Korean agricultural sector increasingly controlled by foreign powers, the concerns of Tonghak are still true today.

Yet peasants continue to be at the forefront of their own struggles. Korean peasant’s philosophies have remained largely unchanged since the days of Tonghak, even as the methods of exploitation against them continue to evolve. At the WTO conference held in Cancun in 2003, a Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae climbed a chain link fence wearing a sign that read “WTO kills farmers” and stabbed himself in the heart. His self immolation was a call to arms for millions of peasants worldwide who are forced off their land and driven into poverty by free trade policies.

During WTO talks in Hong Kong in 2005, one thousand Korean farmers called for an end to WTO in agriculture. 50 of them jumped into the freezing cold waters of Victoria Harbor in an attempt to reach the conference hall. Again in 2005, hundreds of thousands of farmers and citizens protested Korean imports of U.S beef. Founded in 2009, the Sisters Garden Plot sends locally grown and harvested seasonal produce by women peasant farmers to subscribers year round in an effort to achieve greater food sovereignty in South Korea.

With the imminent opening of Korea’s rice markets next year, the Korean Peasant’s League has stated that they “will struggle and prevent it at the risk of [their] lives because rice is [their] final livelihood and destiny.” It seems imperative at this time to do what is absolutely necessary to maintain what little food sovereignty Korea has left and to support and encourage local organizations in the struggle to challenge the WTO and rebuild Korea as a food sovereign nation. The spirit of Tonghak must be resurrected; we must not allow farmers to perish- in Korea and around the world- for when a nation’s food security, sovereignty and self-sufficiency are threatened, its people are also threatened. Indeed, the Tonghak peasants knew that the people are the root of the nation. If the root withers, the nation will be enfeebled.