[VIEWPOINT]Rural areas find life after farmingYoung Sim Min-bo is a farmer, and a happy and proud one at that. The opening of agricultural markets to foreign competitors is expected to bring gloom to rural areas, but a smile fills his face. He is, by nature, cheerful and optimistic, but he has no reason for pessimism even if the agricultural market opens up. He is sure he can live happily in his rural home, secure in the knowledge that he doesn’t have to leave his farm.
He is the owner of a farm I took my kids to every weekend. His “weekend farm” is nothing fancy. Mr. Sim has divided his modest 0.8-acre field into 100 smaller lots, with larger ones about 350 square feet and others about 200 square feet. Each lot is rented to urbanites, who pay 15,000 won, approximately $13, per 35 square feet unit. He gets about 20 million won a year from the rent, about $17,000, which cannot fully support his family. But the weekend farm is only a side job; his main income comes from organic rice and vegetable farming.
A 20-kilogram sack of his organic rice is priced at 80,000 won, more than twice the price of regular rice. The rice is polished when he receives an order, and only the best quality is delivered. He does not use any chemicals or insecticides, and the organic produce can be sold at much higher prices than other vegetables. His “direct-order-only” vegetables are in high demand among the health-conscious crowd.
He personally teaches the city folks, who know nothing about farming, how to organically cultivate crops and vegetables. His current and past tenants then became interested in organic products and have been loyal customers.
Not far from Mr. Sim’s farm, Park Sun-gyu runs a more extensive weekend farm of 4.7 acres. A designated agricultural leader, Mr. Park makes his living from the farm. He rents out 500 accounts and has a waiting list for next year’s lots. With a spacious parking lot, convenient facilities and an outdoor barbeque area, his farm has become a must-visit weekend getaway destination.
Strictly speaking, Mr. Park is not a farmer; he does not work the fields. But he has proved that agricultural knowledge and a bit of land can generate enough income to support his family without farming.
The government has recently come up with a fresh idea, an epochal shift in agricultural policy. The policy would focus on developing the rural community, not the agricultural industry. Rural residents should be able to support themselves by means other than farming. The government would drastically loosen the restrictions on farming lands so that they could be used for other, more profitable purposes. The government hopes non-agricultural industry would make up to two-thirds of a rural community’s total income in a decade.
Whenever the country was pressured to open its agricultural market at the Uruguay Round or the World Trade Organization talks, the government tried to avoid or postpone the issue and focused instead on enhancing agricultural competitiveness. But after pouring 6.2 trillion won in the last decade, what we are left with is shrinking rural income and rising debt per farming family. Young people have left their dwindling hometowns, and the remaining older residents are afraid to try something new.
Farmers groups still steadfastly protest opening the agricultural market. But can protectionism revive the industry?
The solutions to rural communities’ problems cannot be found in the government’s aid package or street demonstrations. Blaming the government and criticizing globalization does nothing to improve competitiveness.
The primary responsibility to save the rural community lies with the farmers. Increasing numbers of young farmers are incorporating new ideas all over the country, trying organic farming, raising flowers, or operating rural tours. Mr. Sim and Mr. Park symbolize the hope and future of Korea’s rural communities.
* The writer is business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo