Strategically revitalizing the agriculture industry

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Strategically revitalizing the agriculture industry

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Top: Lee Hye-in, CEO of a Korean traditional alcohol company in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, introduces her company’s special products: “tiger’s belly button” makgeolli, or traditional Korean rice wine, and “Soho” soju. Above: Chun Dae-kyung, head of MIDM Agricultural Union Corporation, talks about his company’s success after it started supplying rice chips to Starbucks Korea. [CHANG SE-JEONG]

Korea’s agriculture, farm villages, and farmers are facing a new crisis since the government decided to give up Korea’s World Trade Organization (WTO) developing country status in the agricultural sector on Oct. 25.

While the government maintained that the decision caused no damage, farmers and agriculture associations in Korea claim the decision is tantamount to the Moon Jae-in administration abandoning the country’s trade and food sovereignty.

The JoongAng Ilbo recently sat down with some people who have been making efforts in their own fields to protect the agriculture industry.

One such person is Chun Dae-kyung, the head of MIDM Agricultural Union Corporation, which is based in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. He established the company when rice prices had plunged in 2005 and was concerned about the cultivation of rice, so he started to produce fruits and vegetables as well.

His big break came in 2008 when he heard that Starbucks Korea would make a business agreement with the Gyeonggi provincial government office to develop new menu items using local agricultural products. Chun visited Starbucks more than 10 times before finally landing his company a deal to supply Starbucks Korea with its rice chips and cookies.

MIDM Agricultural Union Corporation’s profits have increased dramatically since its first year working with Starbucks in 2009, when it was worth about 250 million won ($210,000). It reached 4 billion won this year and posts more than 7 billion won in average annual sales.

“Producing quality products and securing marketing channels are the most important factors for the success of a business,” said Chun.
Lee Hye-in is another person who used strategic marketing to the advantage of her agriculture company.

Lee is the CEO of a traditional Korean alcohol company based in Pyeongtaek that was founded in 2008 by her father. In 2013 she took over at the company that is known for its “tiger’s belly button” makgeolli (traditional Korean rice wine), which is named so because the Korean Peninsula is said to be shaped like a tiger, and the city of Pyeongtaek is located where the tiger’s belly button would be.

The company’s “Soho” premium distilled soju is another one of its best-known products. Soho means “smiling tiger” when written in Chinese characters.

“Although the price of rice fluctuates and is very unstable, if we use it to make rice cakes, alcohol, or something of great artistic merit, its value becomes enormous,” said Lee.

“We began advertising our products via social network services and the result was way better than we expected,” Lee said. “We always try our best to make long-time customers rather than those who easily change their minds.”

With the makgeolli and soju, the company hit sales of 150 million won last year and is estimated to reach 300 billion won this year.
And it’s not just the heads of companies that are exerting all-out efforts to protect the agriculture industry.

Jeong Min-chul was a teacher at a community college for 12 years before he established the Collaboration Farm in 2011 in South Chungcheong to train young farmers.

Lee Won-seok, one of the young farmers at the Collaboration Farm, was born in Suwon, Gyeonggi. Lee has been staying at the Collaboration Farm for two years and earns about 1 million won a month. He said his dream is to have his own farm by next year.

Seo Chun-su, mayor of Hamyang County, South Gyeongsang, has been working to find a market for wild ginseng, one of the county’s specialties.

“We have been making efforts since 2002 to give the impression to people that Hamyang County is the place for wild ginseng,” Seo said. “We held a wild ginseng festival in 2003 and plan to open a wild ginseng exhibition next year and expect to invite over 1.3 million people from 13 different countries.”

Experts are also getting in on the action.

Those directly related to farm villages, the agriculture industry and farmers held a workshop at an office in Hamyang County on Nov. 15 to discuss some possible ways to transform farm villages. The workshop was organized by the Korea Rural Economic Institute.

“Although the population in rural areas is sharply declining and farm villages are on the verge of extinction due to the aging society, we have yet to come up with a solution,” Seong Kyoung-ryung, chairman of the National Research Council for Economics, Humanities, and Social Sciences said. “We need to find viable alternatives as soon as possible and a pilot project should be undertaken shortly.”

“Although our farm villages can be seen as dystopian now, we still have chances and possibilities to make them utopian as their major growth engines come from within themselves anyway,” said Song Mi-ryung, a researcher of the Korea Rural Economic Institute.
Action has been taken by the central government as well.

The Presidential Commission on Agriculture, Fishery, and Rural Policies has been opening a series of meetings in nine regions across the country to discuss some changes in agricultural administration policy. About 100 people including farmers, public officials and experts participate in each meeting to look for alternatives for agricultural administration policy.

During one of these meetings on Nov. 13, held at the Suwon Convention Center in Gyeonggi, participants wrote down their thoughts on the obstacles to the future of the agriculture industry and posted their notes for others to read.

Some of the obstacles mentioned included income inequality, the government’s decision to give up the developing country status at the WTO, imported agricultural products, the aging society, the decline in population, lack of communication between the government and people and farmers’ stubborn resistance to new technologies.

When the participants were asked to talk about essential tasks in order to change agricultural administration policies, they came up with diverse ideas including securing farmers’ basic income, strengthening farmer education, utilizing agriculture’s big data and promoting value of agriculture.

“We will announce a new objective for agricultural administration under the chairmanship of the President Moon Jae-in in the middle of December,” said Park Jin-do, chairman of the Presidential Commission on Agriculture, Fishery, and Rural Policies.

BY CHANG SE-JEONG, CHEA SARAH [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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