City dwellers diggin’ it

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City dwellers diggin’ it

You’re in search of nature.
Some days, you long for green grass, the peaceful chirp of birds and open space where you and your children can play and crumble soil through your hands.
But you live in Seoul. You’re sick of people pushing you on the sidewalks. You’re tired of the sound and smells of traffic. You’re fed up with squat, square buildings.
Welcome to city life. You’re not ready to reject soaring skyscrapers, nor are you willing to live in the countryside.
One solution lies at the edges of Seoul ― weekend farms, where you can rent a plot of land to plant and grow your own vegetables. Your produce is pesticide-free and as fresh as you pick them.
Seocho Weekend Farm, near Yangjae subway station on the southern edge of the city, is in a small neighborhood anchored by Sinwon church. Right around the corner from the church, a stretch of flat green land breaks the visual rhythm of two- and three-story buildings backed by distant hills.
Blurred shapes of white, pink and blue T-shirt clad people move slowly through the field. You hear birds. The air smells clean. The sun feels warm. And everywhere there is the endless green of hills, field and nature.
You gingerly walk on the foot-wide paths that crisscross the field. The owner, Lee Hyeong-tae, greets you with a shovel in his hand. A smile creases his tanned face. Nearby, nursery school students crawl over each other on a low table. They’re here to plant sweet potatoes, but Mr. Lee is doing most of the heavy work.
“I prep the land for everyone here,” he says. Mr. Lee devoted these 6,600 square meters (7,900 square yards, about the size of two football fields) of land to weekend farming 11 years ago.
Just about that time, several farmers with undeveloped land along the outskirts of Seoul and elsewhere in Gyeonggi province began a cooperative, renting out land to city folk. The idea caught on and the farms began to fill up. The National Agricultural Cooperative Foundation now lists more than 20 weekend farms in the Seoul area. Some weekend farms also offer resting places, places to cook, theme events and games for the children.
At Seocho Weekend Farm, the 365 plots of 11 square meters are rented out every spring. Eighty percent are booked privately, by families or groups of friends. The rest are reserved by organizations.
Mr. Lee provides seeds, some equipment and advice. He also runs a nearby restaurant. “Now I get to meet all sorts of interesting people,” he says.
He leaves the children to introduce you to some of the 20 people farming. He stops by a grandfather and asks, “What are you making those types of holes for?”
Mr. Lee dispenses advice, but the grandfather abruptly announces, “I’m going to plant peanuts.” Mr. Lee looks taken aback. He shakes his head and moves on to a family of three on plot No. 186.
Lee Young-ran comes once a week to care for her lettuce, green peppers, radishes, Chinese cabbage, peanuts and spinach. Her daughter-in-law walks back from the well. Her son sleeps nearby. Ms. Lee and her daughter-in-law work together silently, the mother picking lettuce, the wife watering, while the husband sleeps. Nearby, another couple chats with Ms. Lee.
Mr. Lee leaves to take care of some other gardeners. You move on to a new plot, No. 150. Kim So-young, a 56-year-old housewife, has been gardening in Seocho for four years. On this day, she’s been there from 10 a.m., with her husband. Normally, she comes with her friends, who have rented plots Nos. 143, 146 and 149.
Today, she’s harvesting Chinese cabbage. She also grows lettuce and radishes. “It’s peaceful,” she says about gardening, “and the kids devour the fresh and pesticide-free vegetables I bring home.”
Seoul residents are starting to embrace the idea of eating organic foods, according to Park Hwa-seon, the agricultural foundation officer in charge of Gangdong district farms. “It’s the way of the future,” he says.
These days, most weekend farms begin renting out spaces in March. Many are fully booked by the end of the month, according to Wu Sang-mok, the agricultural foundation officer in charge of the Seocho area farms.
Back at Seocho Weekend Farm, on plot No. 187, Lee Soo-ja is taking care of her first garden. “These vegetables grow better than I thought they would,” she says, sitting next to four plastic bags filled with lettuce.
Ms. Lee missed her usual Saturday appointment with her friends, who told her that the lettuce was ripe and needed to be cut and eaten right away. Tonight, she’ll invite her son-in-law for a feast of barbecued pork and vegetables. “My family is going to eat so well,” she says, before adding, “Gosh, there’s so much lettuce. You want some?”
On plot No. 86, a husband and wife team, Kang Ma-ri and Shin Young-cheol, are gardening. The 80-year-old Ms. Kang is picking lettuce while Mr. Shin is watering. Their son found this garden for the retired couple. “It feels so good to be outdoors, but my body hurts,” Ms. Kang grumbles. “Here, I’ll give you some lettuce,” she says.
Farms like Seocho Weekend Farm are part of a growing trend toward land conservation.
“People are starting to be concerned about the future of earth,” says Kim Seong-ho, who’s in charge of all the Seoul weekend farms listed with the agricultural foundation. “What’s left for us if all the farmlands disappear?”
You sit on a bench and watch the gardeners. And while city life is good, you hope for a green future.

Sangil Weekend Farm, (02) 442-5070
Cost: 40,000 to 70,000 won a year,
plots still open

Seocho Weekend Farm, (02) 574-9691
Cost: 70,000 won a year, fully booked

Daewon Weekend Farm, (02) 574-9303
Cost: 70,000 won a year, fully booked

by Joe Yong-hee
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