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Bleak farming future haunts Korean organic farmers

Low rice prices, lack of interest among youth and state priority on agricultural imports threaten organic farmers

Korean Catholic organic farmers Paul Jung Won-hae (left) and Isidore Ahn Hee-moon are seen in their farmland in Andong of South Korea in this undated image

Korean Catholic organic farmers Paul Jung Won-hae (left) and Isidore Ahn Hee-moon are seen in their farmland in Andong of South Korea in this undated image. (Courtesy: Catholic Times of Korea)

Published: October 25, 2023 11:34 AM GMT

Updated: October 25, 2023 11:39 AM GMT

Paul Jung Won-hae and Isidore Ahn Hee-moon have been chasing their common dream of producing pesticide-free rice through organic farming for the past 32 years.

Both farmers are in their early 70s and their farmlands are in the Pungyang rural mission parish of the Andong diocese in east-central South Korea.

Jung owns 33,000 square meters of farmland, while Ahn owns 10,000 square meters.

They started farming at an early age — Jung as a teenager and Ahn in his twenties.

Today, Jung cultivates organic rice and raises cattle on his farmland. Meanwhile, Ahn grows rice, onions, chives, beans, sesame seeds, and radishes based on different seasons.

They worry that the flourishing organic farm that they have painstakingly built will wilt away due to the low prices that they get and the lack of youth taking up the trade.

Trial and errors

The duo decided to grow pesticide-free organic rice in 1991 when their interactions with the Confederation of Catholic Farmers Movement opened their eyes to the need for chemical-free agricultural practices that save lives and lands from harm.

"At the time, there was a lot of pesticide use, and some farmers were collapsing on the job because of the poisonous chemicals, and some were poisoned by the pesticides,” Ahn said.

“There was a need for pesticide-free, environmentally and health-conscious farming, and someone had to start it," Ahn added.

Some ten farmers including Ahn and Jung began organic farming on a trial-and-error basis.

Ahn pointed out that not using any pesticides and herbicides meant that the farmers had to work hands-on to get rid of unwanted insects and vegetation.

"For a month after planting, we would plow the rice fields from dawn to dusk, bent over the ground, pulling weeds,” Ahn said.

The duo recalled that the organic farming methods used had varying results – some were a success while others were utter failures.

The farmers had tried replacing herbicides with earthworms. However, the first batch of worms reportedly had a voracious appetite and reproduced so fast that they ate and destroyed the rice shoots.

However, the farmers overcame these difficulties and grew paddy and other crops.

The university students and seminarians came here every year to help them with the labor.

The farmers say that the start of the Save Our Farmland Movement (Woorinong) and the increased exchanges between urban and rural areas also helped them to turn their organic farming into a success.

Ahn pointed out that the difference in the clean water in the chemically treated fields and the murky water in the organic fields was a clear indication of the impact of the farming methods employed.

"The pesticide fields have very clear water, because there's no life in the water, but our fields are almost muddy because there are creatures like horseshoe crabs and other microorganisms stirring on the bottom. When you see that, you feel that our fields are really alive," Ahn said.

After 30 years, only Ahn and Jung from among the original 10 farmers remain in the organic farming domain.

Jung’s organic rice and Ahn's pesticide-free vegetables are sold to students through the Yecheon School Food Center.

Some of the produce is sent to the Woorinong store in Pungyang through the Catholic farmers' movement.

Rice produced by Yeonjabangah, a farmers' cooperative centered around the two farmers, has been supplying required materials for school lunches in Mapo-gu, Seoul, since 2019.

Low price and a bleak future

Despite the remarkable progress made by him, Jung is dismayed at the low prices that they get for organic rice that he cultivates and sells.

"A carpenter's daily wage is ten times what it was 30 years ago, but the price of rice hasn't changed,” Jung lamented.

Jung pointed out that a bowl of rice costs only 260 Korean won (US$0.2), whereas a slice of bread costs 2,000 won (US$1.5), and a cup of coffee costs 4,000 won (US$3).

“So how can rice be treated like this?” Jung lamented.

Jung is apprehensive about the future of organic rice cultivation in a country that he says lives on bapshim (rice power), often used to describe how, for Koreans, it doesn't feel like they have really eaten a meal unless they have had some rice.

“I wonder if we are Koreans who live on bapshim. The government is increasing agricultural imports and not listening to farmers, so who will grow healthy food in the countryside with an awakened spirit?" Jung questioned.

Agreeing with Jung’s remarks, Ahn pointed out that farming without pesticides and chemical fertilizers was an uphill task that required extensive efforts compared to those who used chemical-based alternatives.

"Other people can just spray pesticides for an hour and be done with it, but we have to spend ten times that, ten or twenty hours fighting with weeds to get it right,” Jung said.

“I'm getting older, and my back and knees are all sore, and there are no young farmers to carry on this farming, so I'm really worried. Every day I think, 'I'll have to quit next year,'" Ahn lamented.

Jung and Ahn fear that their craft may end with them and worry about the future of their "living and breathing" organic rice fields.

* This report is brought to you in partnership with the Catholic Times of Korea. It has been translated and edited from a feature that was first published by the Korean-language Catholic weekly on Oct. 22, 2023

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