City-born rancher builds heaven for sheep in Gangwon
The meadow that spreads between the beautiful hills below the Daegwanryeong ridge, 800 meters (2624 feet) above sea level, looks like a picture postcard in every direction. Despite being a weekday, the rather large parking lot is full and express buses can be seen coming in and out. Asked whether he wants to open a restaurant or motel, the owner of the ranch, Jeon Yeong-dae, 53, shakes his head and says, “I have no time for those things. Taking care of the flock takes up a great deal of time.”
“Still, having something like a lamb barbecue should get you a handful of profit,” the JoongAng Ilbo reporter comments. The owner just laughs and points towards a few children on a picnic, eating seaweed rice rolls under the warm sunlight.
“Children are thrilled to feed sheep by themselves. It wouldn’t be right to feed them with one hand, and then eat them with the other,” Mr. Jeon says.
Until 1988, Mr. Jeon was a sales manager at a pharmaceutical company. During the Seoul Olympic Games, he left Seoul to come here because he was “tired of the repetitiveness of corporate life.”
This area has had many ranches since the 1970s, after then-president Park Chung Hee returned from a visit to Australia and New Zealand. He supported livestock farming saying, “We should be able to enjoy meat.”
Gangwon province can be a tough place. Temperature are down to minus 30 degrees Celsius and snow stacks up to 2 meters (6.6 feet). In the 1970s, four families of subsistence farmers barely survived on what is now Mr. Jeon’s land.
It was almost crazy for a pharmaceutical salesman with no knowledge about a ranch to move here, much less build a livestock farm for tourists.
At that time, tourism and ranches were as different as apples and oranges. But Mr. Jeon saw potential synergy. In retrospect it seems smart, but at the time, it was a risky plan.
“When I told my ideas to county officials or livestock experts, they looked at me like I was a freak.”
He then sold a small apartment in Gyeonggi province, took his entire savings of 46 million won ($44,000) and bought the 50-acre ranch. Getting hold of the sheep was no problem because 230 sheep from the Mount Jiri area were on sale due to a ranch liquidation.
“Each sheep cost 50,000 won. The breeding farm owners were even worried. They must have thought how stupid I was. Curious and concerned, they came by the farm during vacation, year after year,” Mr. Jeon said.
There were objections as well. Who would be supportive of giving up a job and going deep into the mountains? Mr. Jeon persuaded his wife, who opposed the idea, saying, “I will build you a beautiful, picturesque house on those green hills.” His sons were three and five at the time. Mr. Jeon says that it would have been harder if his sons were in school.
“At first, I really dreamed of a picturesque house on the hills. After two years, reality hit hard,” Mr. Jeon says. He felt like the farm was just eating up his hard-earned money.
“For about 15 years, there was just enough money to provide for two meals a day.”
In fact, lamb barbeque had been his main income source until two years ago. One lamb feeds about 50 people for approximately 1.2 million won. When all they had was 40,000 won in their pocket, an order for a barbeque was a savior.
They couldn’t afford a veterinarian either. During their second winter, 40 of their lambs died. Experienced shepards know that female and male sheep must be separated during certain months to ensure lambs are only born in the spring; but they weren’t aware of this. The sheep gave birth in the blistering cold of December and January.
“We didn’t even know they were pregnant,” Mr. Jeon said. “It was all under their fur. But every morning we would find these newborn lambs dead on the ground. Even with the heaters on, the temperature fell to minus 30 degrees Celsius.”
They were saddened by the loss of these innocents. After that, they never saw other lambs die. Luckily, Gangwon province is so unpolluted that the herd never caught diseases. They were grateful that they didn’t have to spend any money on medication.
They worked night and day for 10 years, but the place still didn’t seem to have a stock farm vibe.
“When you are working with nature, the results aren’t produced in a day. It takes two to three years for you to glimpse a difference,” Mr. Jeon said.
Four years ago, on their 13th year, it began to look a little bit like a stock farm. The herd was strolling about on the mountain hills and subsequently people visited.
During the Chinese year of the sheep three years ago, the number of visitors soared. Later, the movie “A Man Who Went To Mars” and several commercials were filmed at the ranch. Despite the commercial failure of the movie, the sets won the love of photographers.
“They said that they would disassemble the set after shooting the film, but we told them to not bother, and build them well enough to endure the strong winds,” Mr. Jeon said.
This ranch’s walkways are exceptionally popular. They are 1.5 kilometers long, and visitors can stroll through the ranch enjoying the scenery.
When people found out about the ranch some offered to buy it for large sums. One construction firm offered to give them enough money to buy a large building in Seoul. Mr. Jeon’s wife, Lee Gang-hui, who worked on the ranch for 17 years, asked her husband to sell the place. He didn’t even twitch an eye.
“This is the place where my children grew up in second hand clothes. It broke my heart when my son said that his only memory of this place was snow. I can’t stop here,” Mr. Jeon said, determined to realize his Eden.
The ranch does not charge admission fees, but collects 2,500 won for hay to feed the sheep. They finally have a source of income, and can afford to hire five employees, and no longer sell lamb for barbeques.
Many South Asians visit the ranch too, but they come to see snow rather than the herd. Mr. Jeon hopes to compete with ranches in New Zealand and Australia, and work until he is 75 years old. The hard work he has been doing may continue for 20 more years, but he still smiles.
by Lee Hoon-beom
To visit the ranch, take the Yeongdong Freeway to the Hoenggye Nadeulmok exit. Turn right immediately and at the first crossroad turn left. This will lead to the old Daegwanryeong road. After 5 kilometers you will come across the ruins of the old Daegwanryeong rest area, and there is a sign to the ranch from there. Gangwon province, Pyeongchang county, Doam-myeon Hoenggye-ri 14-104, (033) 335 1966.