How one region became the ‘grass capital’ of Korea

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How one region became the ‘grass capital’ of Korea

In Samseo-myeon, Jangseong county in South Jeolla province, verdant grass looking like a green carpet covers not only the fields but also paddies where one would expect to see rice.
“Seven years ago, I quit rice farming and switched to grass planting and my income has doubled since then,” said Sim Sang-uk as he sprayed fertilizer on his 4,628-square-meter (49,817 square foot) grass plot in Suhae village. “I think it’s much better than the rice.”
In April, Mr. Sim sold the grass he has been cultivating for a year for 20,500 won per square meter, or a total of 8.7 million won ($8,540). Four years ago, he cleared his 3,306-square-meter persimmon farm and has been planting grass there as well.
The Samseo-myeon residents make a good living out of the grass business. According to Jangseong county officials, the net income from the grass is 13,100 won per square meter, while that for rice is a mere 6,640 won.
Summer is the busiest time of the year. In the rainy period, when the growth rate accelerates, people have no time to waste since they must mow the grass to prevent overgrowth, and weed and fertilize it.
The grass-cultivating farmers usually harvest their plants once a year. But the experts can harvest three times over two years by raising their grass in well-watered paddies, planting additional grass and mowing it frequently. The latter make three times the income that rice farmers do.
“This year alone, more than 20 hectares of paddies owned by about 20 households switched from rice to grass,” according to Mun Gyeong-hui, the chief clerk for industry at the Samseo-myeon government office. “The farmers in our town are not affected much by the price drops in the rice market,” she said.
Kim Gap-su, the head of the Suhae 1-ri area, explained that “Because seven grass farming cooperatives have even borrowed other people’s plots to mass produce grass, there is little land left unattended as in other villages.”
Among the 1,122 households farming 1,805 hectares of land in Samseo-myeon, 844 households are raising grass on 676 hectares. In other words, three out of four farmers are planting grass. The grass is supplied to cemeteries, golf courses, football fields, parks, gardens, and apartment and road construction sites. Seventy percent of Korea’s grass is produced here.
When the price is high, the grass is worth 23,100 won per square meter. If the average price is 5,000 won per pyeong (3.3 square meters), the farmers in Samseo-myeon can make about 10 billion won. Once the labor fee of 696 won per square meter that is paid out to the farmers by the marketers is added in, the direct revenue from grass planting becomes 14.6 billion won.
Samseo-myeon was designated a mass silk production area after a severe drought in 1968. Mulberry trees were planted on the hillsides and fields, and silkworms were raised. But after sericulture went into decline in the 1970s, Jung Chan-gil, then the town head, and two others planted grass in the 9,920 square meters of reclaimed land and 1,719 square meters of fields in Seokma-ri and Geumsan-ri in 1981. Their neighbors thought they were crazy and laughed at them.
But as grass began to produce high returns thanks to demand from such areas as constructions sites, people removed the mulberry trees and began to plant grass. The demand was so great that the farmers uprooted grass growing naturally along the roads or dikes and planted it in their fields.
The huge demand for grass due to the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Seoul Olympics led to a surge in its price. Farmers who had borrowed other people’s land to plant grass were able to purchase the land with the earnings generated by the sales of grass, and grass cultivation spread to the paddies.
The success of Samseo-myeon grass was due in great part to the quality of its soil. The grass produced from the mix of loess and sand develops strong roots that make it sturdy under all conditions. Not only does it have a strong regerative power but it also survives well on the putting greens of golf courses, where it is cut very short, and is resistant to weeds because of the high density of new growth.
Bong Man-gi, a former member of the national agricultural cooperative who was one of the first to begin planting grass, said, “I feel proud to have helped the farmers in our region make a steady income for the past 25 years by finding a new cash crop.
“We should not stop at merely cultivating grass. We should look for ways to attract tourists by holding regional festivals that utilize the grass fields that practically cover our village,” Mr. Bong added.

by Lee Hai-suk
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