Potatoes as a road into self

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Potatoes as a road into self

The view of life on a small farm is often one of romance -- relaxing after a rewarding day of hard work, looking into a night filled with the shining awards for your untiring effort.
“The starlight is even brighter there than in Seoul,” says Lee Kook-hee, a 29-year-old attorney, speaking of her stay on a farm. And for the lucky, as Ms. Lee describes it, there is a bonus. “After finishing exhausting work, people easily fall in love, cozying up in a hut, eating watermelon, watching the bright sky.”
But getting to this idyllic place takes a day’s arduous journey. And as many family farmers will tell you, at the end of the road Ms. Lee tumbled into the clutches of amorous sentimentality. But her state is easy to explain. Ms. Lee is a volunteer. What’s more, she is a student volunteer, part of a cadre of young adults who spend a week of their summer break harvesting crops that otherwise might not make it to market. As the number of workers on Korean farms continues to thin, there seems to be a gradual, collective bow to what farmers consider the inevitable: People will leave; no one will come. So to see a clutch of young eager faces arriving each year is a morale booster: Maybe there is reason for hope. And if it is hope these students are sowing, well, that’s alright, too, for farming, with its weather and market vagaries, is, in large part, a faith-based industry.
The students who gathered last month at 7 a.m. in front of Korea University’s student council hall did bring along religious fervor. Numbering nearly 1,000, some held crimson flags on which was printed “The Unity between Korea University and Agricultural Workers.” Except for a few here and there who were still hugging somnolence, they sparkled, as though setting out on a mission for Ceres. After a seven-hour ride south from Seoul’s concrete and steel menagerie into the lush hills of Gangwon province they de-bused into the broad smiles of a group of grateful farmers.
The people of Gangwon have backbone. They need it. The area is sparsely populated, looking like an expansive tree farm, with heavy forest running up and down the Baekdu Mountain range, the spine of the Korean peninsula. With the coal mines long-shuttered, the province’s 1.6 million residents rely on visitors ― skiers, mountaineers and naturalists ― for income. The provincial government is in a drive to bring investment into the area, foreign money, in particular, and in showcasing Gangwon’s rivers, new highways and seaports, the region’s farmers have been nearly forgotten.
Into this complex socio-economic landscape arrives 20 vehicles that disgorge hundreds of students who have been traveling up to five hours enveloped in missionary zeal. And now the work begins, a transformation of sorts. Some are transformed right away.
“Four freshmen dropped out on account of the tough work and inconvenient life here,” said Hwang Bo-seok, a sophomore history education major who volunteered to work on a potato farm. Mr. Hwang said he stayed because few young workers wanted to do such a job.
About 150 students from Korea University’s history education department were assigned to work in Yanggu county, which is dotted with small farms. The average size of a Korean farm is 2.4 acres. From the bus depot, where they were heralded by the bark of a tiny dog, the students grabbed their bags and marched to the village’s community hall, where they ate a meal of ramyeon and kimchi soup. After a few attempts at conversation on what the dawn would bring, they drifted into sleep one by one.
The daily schedule of the Nonghwal volunteers:

6 a.m. Wake up, breakfast
7 a.m. Start work
6 p.m. Finish work
7 p.m. Evaluate day’s tasks
8 p.m. Group activities
11 p.m. Bedtime

As scheduled, the day seems straightforward, organized from hour to hour. Time taken in large blocks, of course, hides the small prickly details. Second by second the toil crushes down on the students, dressed in overalls and wide-brimmed straw hats to protect heads from the sun. Minute by minute these eager souls who have spent most of their lives sitting at study tables become covered with dust, mud and sweat as they poke at the earth with small spades, digging up one potato after another. Stooped and nearly crawling along, their youth seems to have taken flight. The faces began to lose their glow, but most, like Lee Woon-hee, a freshman, say they enjoy the work, even though it is tough. Ms. Lee’s skill at potato harvesting won her recognition as Miss Potato.
For Nonghwal farmers, it is King Potato, but this ruler has been nearly dethroned.
“Yanggu county is struggling even more because the potato harvest is much worse than last year,” said Ham Ok-nyeon, 65. “I think there might have been a problem with the seed issued by the cooperative. But I am so grateful that the young students volunteered to work here.”
“I thought university students, known to relish their own space and own time, would not want to do this kind of difficult work,” said Kim Hee-yong. Mr. Kim says he has worked with university students for the last 13 years. The number of applicants has not decreased, he noted, proudly describing the students as bright with principles.
University students began converging on Korea’s farms during the 1980s, rebels against the military regime of Chun Doo Hwan, who came to power in a military coup. In those days the students’ goal was to turn the soil while instilling rural residents with the hope of democracy.
Today the teaching continues, but of another sort.
“Student give free lessons to local elementary, middle and high school students,” says Choi Sang-cheol, a 25-year-old student at Korea University. “It is interesting even though we are not getting paid. It is a memorable experience to sleep in a community hall and discuss problems that the agricultural industry is facing.”
Mr. Choi says about 800 students out of 20,000 at Korea University applied to work on farms during the summer. Jeonnam National University in South Jeolla province reported the largest number of volunteers this year, 1,300.
Begining in the 1970s, the number of workers on Korean farms began to dwindle rapidly as industrialization drew young people to the cities. Statistics show that of Korea’s 3.5 million farmers, roughly a third are between the ages of 60 and 74. The average income per farm is 24 million won ($20,000), much of which is reinvested in equipment and infrastructure. Incomes are expected to be further eroded as free trade agreements take effect. The Doha Round of global trade talks puts more pressure on Korea to open its agricultural markets. What’s more, Korean farmers are losing the race in price competitiveness to China and South America.
“It was one of the most precious memories of my university days,” said Ms. Lee, the attorney who graduated from Korea University’s college of law in 1998. “I went to Gangwon province to offer voluntary service in 1994 and farmers there named me Miss Tomato because I was the best worker at harvesting tomatoes.”

by Kim Hae-noon
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