[VIEWPOINT]Old farms need young leadersYou couldn’t help but have seen the fields of golden waves on your way home for the Chuseok holiday. As you drove the hours to your hometown, you couldn’t miss the rice plants bearing hundreds of grains. This nostalgic scene for urban dwellers is almost repulsive to the farmers. They are certainly grateful the crops have grown without much trouble, unlike an ordinary year, and that nature has turned their sweat into grain. However, somehow they still feel unsatisfied and unenthusiastic.
Generally, farmers are not keen on rice farming, despite it being relatively easier than dry-field farming. In reality, they consider each year whether to give up rice farming but routinely sow the seeds and transplant the rice seedlings anyway. How much does rice farming yield that it makes the farmers so reluctant? A 2,000 pyeong field, about 1.9 acres, yields roughly 35 80-kilogram sacks of rice. As each sack is sold for 160,000 won ($155), the harvest generates 5.6 million won. The government pays a fixed subsidy of 350,000 won, so the total revenue is around 6 million won. Subtract the cost of seed and fertilizer and other overheads and the net profit is about 5 million won. If a farmer went to a financial consultant, he would be advised that he could sell the land at 50,000 won per pyeong, which would probably be the cheapest rate in the country, and cash out for a lump sum of 100 million won. If he put the money into a savings account, he would make an income of about 4 million won a year in interest. He could either enjoy his leisure or, if he wanted to make money, work in someone else’s field. In the latter case, he could make more than 1.5 times what he would make by growing crops on his own land.
However, farmers don’t do that. It is the nature of farmers to part with their land only at the last moment. No matter what happens in the rice market, farmers will still transplant the seedlings into their rice fields. Because of the farmers’ sentiment, law makers based in farming regions are faced with a dilemma. The deadline to ratify the rice negotiation bill is fast approaching at the end of this year. In last year’s negotiation, the government successfully postponed the opening up of the rice market until 2014. In return, the mandatory import volume was increased to 9.6 percent of annual rice consumption. The United States and China, the world’s major exporters of rice, must have exerted their influence. If the bill is not ratified at the National Assembly, Korea will have to open up the rice market next year.
The bill, which is currently pending at the assembly, is a far better deal than opening the rice market immediately but no lawmaker is willing to stand by it, fearing its impact on the livelihoods of farming households. If the bill had been passed before the Chuseok holiday, panic-stricken farming villages might have been unwelcoming to homecoming urbanites, and the lawmakers that voted for the bill could have got doused.
Unlike the ambiguous stance of lawmakers based in agricultural districts who support the ratification bill but oppose its passing, the Democratic Labor Party and farmers organizations have stood up to protest the bill. They demand the government come up with a better deal than the existing bill. They know too well that a 10-year deferment is the next best thing to keeping the rice market exclusive for good, and it is impossible to safeguard Korean agriculture endlessly under the system of the World Trade Organization. However, they claim they have no option other than a “do-or-die” protest.
The agricultural population makes up 7 percent of the total population while agriculture generates only 3 percent of gross domestic products. The competitiveness of Korean agriculture is so low that other industries are subsidizing its losses. Therefore, what is more urgent than a protest is to hasten self-innovation to improve agricultural competitiveness. However, this is certainly a difficult challenge. While sensing the risk of falling prices, many farmers feel at ease only after sowing the same crops they planted every year before in an habitual fashion. In the existing economics of agriculture, many farmers find no alternative way to make their living when they give up farming for a year. The government has prepared a delay of 10 years till the opening of the rice market, so it is up to the farmers to come up with a survival plan.
The competitiveness of the Korean agricultural industry depends on how we convert farming into agricultural manufacturing. Southeast Asian nations raise two or three crops a year and China is aggressively churning out low-priced products in huge quantities. The United States is equipped with competitive prices through large-scale farming. In order to avoid a face-to-face confrontation, Korean farmers need to aim at niche markets, such as custom-made, made-to-order products and specialized organic produce. Some Korean farmers detected this trend early on and actively introduced local brand produce. Imagine aging farmers checking out the prices of farm products online at a so-called “information network village.” There is a sociological element necessary for these hopeful signs to be realized as an advanced agricultural industry. What is desperately needed is a group of talented leaders to guide the farming communities. In farming villages full of old farmers waiting to say their farewells to the land, how many young farmers can be found to encourage the villagers and convince them to take the risk of innovation? If there are any, do we understand what help they need as they wage a lonely fight for the future of the Korean agricultural industry?
* The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Song Ho-keun