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

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Korean Peasants Sow the Seeds of Nation’s Food Sovereignty

By Taryn Assaf

“Korea is Samsung, and Samsung is Korea”. This phrase is commonly heard and almost religiously believed by much of South Korea’s urban population. Much of what outsiders know about South Korea is Samsung, and taken from a purely economic perspective, that’s not so hard to believe: the top 30 Korean corporations make up 82 percent of the country’s exports, with Samsung being the largest. Not so long ago, South Korea was a different world entirely. Rewind to the 1970s and you’d find a population of 50 percent farmers compared to just 6.2 percent today. You’d find an economy sustained by the agricultural, rather than the technology, sector. You’d find a country that was 80 percent food self-sufficient compared to fifty percent in 2012, (however, if we take away rice and grains, the self sufficiency rate drops to a staggering six percent)[i] the lowest among OECD nations. What this has meant for Korean farmers is a total loss of livelihood; what it means for Korean citizens is a near complete reliance on foreign foodstuffs, which, as evidenced by the 2007 global food crisis, can lead to shortages and price hikes, tightening the already stretched average household budget.

Farming in Korea began its decline in the 1980s when the United States began applying pressure on South Korea to dismantle trade barriers that had, until then, protected its domestic agricultural sector. With the threat of trade sanctions, Korea opened its markets to US beef, wine, tobacco and rice. Facing large deficits in trade, and realizing it no longer needed to use its food surpluses to strengthen Cold War alliances, the US argued that agriculture should be incorporated into trade negotiations. The World Trade Organization (WTO) began pressuring the world’s farming sectors to open their markets to global competition. In 1994, Korea entered the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)[ii] with the WTO, welcoming the near demise of its agricultural sector. This forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs on agricultural imports from the US and European Union, which both subsidize their farmers and agribusinesses to the combined sum of $1 billion a day. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the International Monetary Fund imposed further liberalization policies on Korea’s agricultural sector, hurling Korean small farmers out of competition (and for many, out of business entirely). All of this has resulted in a four-fold debt increase – an average of approximately $30,000 USD – in farming households since 1995, which continues to rise. What only forty years ago was a thriving industry is no longer a viable way of life, and Koreans must fight to hold on to their right to farm and their right to food.

As a result of bad industry and agricultural policies, food is treated as a commodity rather than a human right. The right to

Jeomok Bak receives the Food Sovereignty Prize (Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for WhyHunger)

Jeomok Bak receives the Food Sovereignty Prize (Stuart Ramson/Insider Images for WhyHunger)

healthy and culturally appropriate food produced sustainably and according to a people’s own agricultural system – a concept otherwise known as food sovereignty – is continually undermined by structural barriers caused by market demands, corporations and complicit governments. Therefore, prioritizing the needs and livelihoods of food producers, distributors and consumers is central to a sovereign food system. Korea’s peasant farming population has been a world leader in reclaiming that system. In October 2012, the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize (FSP) by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. The FSP was developed as an alternative to the more famously known World Food Prize.[iii] It celebrates small farmers and other food producers who use socially just, environmentally sustainable and economically viable production systems. The KWPA coordinates and carries out a number of activities throughout Korea designed to empower women through the process of sustainable farming.

One of KWPA’s main initiatives is empowering women peasants through indigenous seed preservation. Indigenous seed preservation was traditionally the responsibility of women as a consequence of the conventional division of labor on the farm. According to Hyo-Jeong Kim in her conference paper, “Food Sovereignty: A critical Diologue”, “the seed economy was a women’s economy”. During Korea’s Green Revolution in the 1970s, government policies that promoted and favored industrial farming led to the loss of women’s indigenous skill and knowledge. The practice of seed preservation became nearly extinct as industrial farming methods became the norm (buying seeds, fertilizer and soil; using heavy machinery, and increasing crop yields). Not only was this a loss of expertise, it was a loss of women’s empowerment. Native seeds and their crops embody the knowledge and skills of women peasant farmers, so to disregard that knowledge is to erase a large element of women’s agency on the farm. Despite the erasure of seed preservation from modern agriculture, many women held on to the practice. To sustain KWPA’s initiative, therefore, requires that that knowledge be passed down from the now elderly women peasant population to the younger farming generation, which is only familiar with industrial farming methods. Making seed preservation once more a priority in agriculture means making women’s knowledge and instinct a priority; it means transferring power from seed manufacturing companies back to women.

img_sisters_gardenSister’s Garden Plot (SGP), for instance, aims to connect consumers to women food producers who collectively grow and deliver weekly, biweekly and monthly packages of organic produce and other homemade products to consumers’ doorsteps. They also sell organic sesame oil and soy sauce, among other a-la-carte items, on their website. SGP currently operates 26 farm communities throughout Korea. The program aims to create a solution to the crises caused by neoliberalism and a globalized food production system. From their website, “SGP believes in sustainable, organic farming, in protecting and preserving biodiversity, in safeguarding native seeds, and in realizing peasants’ rights.” In doing so, they are reclaiming their right to a food production system that puts power back in the hands of producers and consumers. Also from their website, “As a result of their efforts, women peasants in these communities take pride as women peasants and have achieved greater social recognition in their homes and villages”.

KWPA is not the only, nor the first, organization in Korea leading the alternative agriculture movement. Hansalim began in 1986 as Korea’s first agricultural cooperative and is now the largest such cooperative in the world, boasting close to 400,000 household memberships and 2000 food producers. They believe in a healthy exchange between rural producers and urban consumers through the purchase of products and through tours, cooperation activities, education programs and campaigns. To build trust between consumers and producers, Hansalim offers an “Autonomous Check System” whereby consumers and producers can go through the production process together. This is meant to ensure transparency and quality, thus developing relationships with farmers and their products.

Hansalim offers a wide variety of products, ranging from living and household items to fresh produce to processed foods (seasonings, snacks, and side dishes). To protect food sovereignty, they support all domestic producers, not only those who use organic methods (some use low levels of pesticides, although priority is given to organic producers) and focuses solely hansalim reciepton local items. Livestock producers, for instance, use domestically grown barley to feed their livestock, bypassing the need to rely on grain imports and securing 400 hectares of barley producing land. Additionally, each product comes with a label detailing the number of kilometers traveled and the amount of carbon emissions saved in comparison to a similar imported product. The focus on local allows members to experiment with seasonal products and re-acquaint themselves with the traditional food culture.

To make shopping easy and convenient for its busy, urban customers, Hansalim offers home delivery options in addition to its 154 stores across the country. They even offer an app for iPhone and Android, through which users can access seasonal food information and Hansalim news, among other features.

Re-building Korea into a food sovereign nation is, by no means, easy. Cooperatives like Hansalim and organizations like the Korean Women Peasants Association embody the true meaning of food sovereignty, where priority is given to local production for local markets, based on local knowledge and resources. Many CSAs have sprouted up in response to the success of others – Gachi CSA (formerly WWOOF CSA), for instance, targets English speakers in Korea. Movements like these re-prioritize the lost relationship between consumers and producers in ways that ensure a dignified income for the farmers whose livelihoods have been eaten into by free trade and neoliberalism. They stand up for marginalized groups and stand against the environmentally degrading practices of large-scale industrial farming. Peasant farmers in Korea are nurturing the crops of sustainable agriculture with love and care, and are reclaiming a food system they can truly call their own.

[i] Anders Riel Mueller, The Fight for Real Food in Korea, Korean Quarterly, Winter 2012

[ii] The AoA is “the economic engine for promoting industrial agriculture — replacing family farmers with agribusiness, family farms with corporate farms, and biodiversity with monocropping.” Anuradha Mittal, Losing the Farm: How Corporate Globalization Pushes Millions off Land and Into Desperation; The Multinational Monitor, July/August 2003, 24(7/8)

[iii] The World Food Prize celebrates increased agricultural production through the use of industrial agriculture. Its recipients have included Monsanto’s Executive Vice President, Robert Fraley, for work developing GMO crops used in the U.S. Critics of the WFP state that it champions pro-GMO corporate agribusiness and the corporate owned global food system.

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:

IMG_3550Although I had already experienced urban and rural farming in Korea, I really enjoyed our visit to the “Back to the Land” village in Sangju. Though a staunchly conservative region of the country, the Peasants League and Korean Women’s Peasant Association are active here and they were very open to sharing their struggles with the ISC team. We also did truly meaningful physical work – picking the well-known Sangju pears and threshing perilla and buckwheat, all while munching on persimmon and enjoying our lovely surroundings. We struck a good balance between work and in-depth conversation, especially as we shared our personal connections to food and farming over a round of drinks with the farmers. A great learning weekend. – Ana Traynin

IMG_3537I was invited to partake in some of the autumn 2014 harvesting activities at the Saebyeok Farm. I looked forward to a weekend away from the city surrounded by nature and some good healthy labor as a switch-up from lab work. Upon arrival, we were given a hearty welcome by Jo Won-Hee, an avid farmer and member of the Korean Peasants League. We immediately jumped into the works going on by gathering dozens of crates full of pears along with Lee Seok-Min, another farmer of the cooperative. We learned some of the science and methodology of family-style farming, along with some of the social issues facing small farmers in light of free trade. Additionally, we were exposed to the implications of insurgence of imported food to South Korea. We also met with the president of the Korean Peasant’s Woman Association to hear of some of the struggles for female farmers in Korea. Coming from a place where you really should wash everything before eating, it was almost like a Willy Wonka experience to be able to just pick a huge pear off of a tree and taste some of the freshest fruit ever experienced. It did not end there; we also sampled a fair share of persimmon. The next day we continued to harvest various peppers and buckwheat before making the trek back to Seoul. Throughout the weekend, we met some very kind people who made sure we felt as welcome as possible. My first farming experience was well had. – Matt D’Arcy

IMG_3602As someone who grew up not only in produce-rich California but a town known for agriculture, yet had never experienced farming, I arrived for the weekend excited yet not quite sure what to expect. Thanks to the kindness and consideration of our host Jo Won-Hee, his family, and the rest of the Seunggok Village community, my first experience with farming was both fun and fulfilling. There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to see the fruits of your labor (pun intended). It also wasn’t until leaving Seoul that I realized how much of a tangible effect urban living has; in the countryside the air felt cleaner, the food tasted better, and people seemed more at peace, making the return to the hustle and bustle of Seoul a jarring one.
At the same time, though, I felt very conscious of the fact that, while this was merely a fun educational weekend activity for us, for the farmers we worked with, this was their life’s work and livelihood. They spoke candidly about the negative impact the FTA and other neoliberal policies have had on them and how protesting them is essential not only to protecting their way of life but for food sovereignty of Korea. As anxious as I feel right now about earning a sufficient income on a month-to-month basis, I can hardly imagine staking a year’s work and income on crops; and after seeing the dedication and care that goes into family farming, ensuring their security seems like something that should be a given. Yet, despite these hardships, the image that has remained with me is not one of victimhood, but of inspiring protagonism, of people who prize their right to self-sufficiency and a relationship with the land despite the forces of capitalism and neoliberalism. – Stephanie Park

IMG_3553Having just arrived in Korea a little over a month ago, I’ve been immensely curious about life outside of Seoul, in particular rural and agrarian life. Both Koreans and foreigners had told me there isn’t much to see in the Korean countryside. They dismissed its importance, remarking how there is very little un-urbanized land and what remains isn’t picturesque or well groomed. However, after a short but transformative weekend in Sangju, it became clear that the rural landscape and the communities that reside there are an indispensible part of South Korea’s past, present and future.
In the village, the air was fresh and rejuvenating; the fresh fruit and vegetables were nourishing, and the people were charming and welcoming. But there was more to our experience than these pleasant breaks from dense city-life. The long and intimate conversations with farmers revealed struggle, vulnerability, and defeat alongside courage, activism and empowerment. At times, I felt hopeless for this group as they spoke of their struggles with the free trade agreements and massive GMO seed companies. And yet, much of the time I felt huge waves of empowerment overtake these thoughts when they would speak about KWPA, Sister’s Garden Plot, or the back to the land movement. I left Sangju feeling the importance of this under-appreciated group of people and their landscape. In this place, a rare continuity of time still exists. Layers of Korean history still occupy the rural landscape and the memories of those living there – whether it’s the political history still restraining them, or the ancient traditions of community and ancestor worship still being practiced or remembered. And while the farmers keep a very present mindset structured by the weather and seasons, they are continually building, fighting, and working for the future of small-scale farming in South Korea.
It is clear that there is much to be learned from this group, about Korean history, food sovereignty, activism and more. While I learned an immense amount about Korean history, political structure and social movements, my personal role in the scheme of things also became clearer. I realize that we all have a say in these issues in some way and our decisions, actions and votes at home or in Korea, may ultimately impact the people we meet in a tiny farming village in South Korea. – Lindsay Burnette

DSC_8908This past weekend the ISC traveled to Sangju, a ‘slow’ city in South Korea’s countryside to learn about farming. From the moment we stepped on to the farm we were welcomed with hospitality, smiles and fresh, delicious food. Each farmer we met was beaming as many told us of the move they had made from city life, to country living. We were given a taste of what food grown by a strong local community can look like. We spent the weekend discussing politics while picking pears, persimmons and peppers. Our work was rewarded with fruit juice, sweet potatoes and traditional home cooked meals. We saw how hard people work to grow and harvest food. It’s a simple, natural cycle that is often taken for granted. We live in a fast paced world where people hardly have time to chew, let alone cook. People are disconnected from their food, most never have a moment to slow down and appreciate where it comes from and how it’s grown. Food and farming have become increasingly complicated and political. Economic barriers and capitalism are destroying the balance humans have with nature. Instead of our food being directly in the hands of the people, it’s controlled by corporations. Over the course of the weekend, I came to the realization that this fight isn’t just about food- it’s much deeper. It’s about the different cultures and communities that surround the food. Local farming initiatives, like the one in Sangju, are not only growing food, they are helping to rebuild communities. They are dedicated to preserving a simple, healthy way of living. This weekend was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. I was fed some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, from some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. All the political and economic facts and figures from food related documentaries, articles and books I’ve been exposed to were given context. I am grateful to all the farmers who shared their stories, wisdom and their work with us. When it was time to go home I was refreshed and happy- I also felt a sense of urgency. Farms and communities like these are rare. If things don’t start to change soon they will no longer exist. Food is integral, not only to our survival, but to our happiness and quality of life. We need to slow down and reexamine our current relationship with food and help support local farmers who are taking the time to grow food we can feel good about eating. – Erica Sweett