Ancient Wisdom: Aging Farmers

The plight of the farmer

Farmer Cho with Mr. Hong discussing the state of farming in Korea

In Korea, as in the United States, the story is the same: aging farmers, expensive land, and not enough respect for the sustenance they provide. In April, I had the pleasure to meet with Farmer Cho, a 60-year-old strawberry, rice, and beef cattle farmer living about one-hour east of Seoul in the Yang-pyeong valley. Farmer Cho, who is the average age of a farmer in Korea, was just starting to make money with his strawberry crop and getting ready for his rice season. I spoke with Farmer Cho through our guide, Mr. Hong, who had no farming knowledge and had never even been on a farm. My daughter and I each picked an $18 quart of strawberries as an agri-tourist activity. Our guide didn’t pick strawberries, but he sure enjoyed the basket of fruit I gave him as his tip!

Farmer Cho’sĀ farm operation

Farmer Cho manages 2.5 acres in the 37-acre farm valley, where 30 different farmers till the land. The valley is filled with rice paddies, peppers, onions, garlic, cherry trees, and more. So few acres with so many farmers surprised me, but the smallest farm is only 0.25 acres. With such small amounts of acreage, Korean farmers would never be able emulate the American food production system with our large acreage farms, since the whole country is only the size of Indiana with 40 million people!

Farmer Cho has 63 head of cattle that have limited real estate in the barns and are fed a purchased grain product and leftover rice grass from previous seasons. His operation is certified organic by the Korean government, and he uses the cattle-generated manure to fertilize the rest of his operation.

Organic certification has been a benefit to Farmer Cho as the Korean government purchases his products to serve in the Korean public school system. If he grew non-organic cattle, he would earn $2,600 per animal, but with the organic cattle he is able to earn $7,000 per animal. Even with the premiums paid by the government, the cost of land is prohibitive to any new farmer at $260/square meter or about $1.1 million per acre.

A typical Korean rice paddy

To assist with training a new generation of farmers, each of the eight Korean provinces has an agricultural college, and each farmer is given a $170,000 loan towards training new farmers. Further, when the land changes ownership, 30% of the new farmer’s profit is paid to the old farmer to cover the costs of the loan and land transfer, while the remaining 70% of the profit is directed to the new farm owner. These are significant incentives, but it is unclear whether they are adequate to continue the long history of Korean food production, as evidenced by the population of Korean farmers dropping from 25% to 7% over Farmer Cho’s lifetime.

I asked our guide to ask Farmer Cho whether farming is a respected occupation in Korea. Mr. Hong did not translate my question and only shook his head, “no.”

Washington Farmers

In my home state of Washington, there is a resurgence in small farm creation and expansion. Boistfort Valley Farm and Viva Farms are hiring upwards of 40 people between their two farms in positions varying from farm manager, market manager, production crew, and grants manager. According to the USDA’s Farmland Information Center website, Washington state saw an increase in number of farms and farmers from 2002 to 2007, despite a decrease in acreage farmed and a 7% increase in the number of farmers over age 55. Whether the positive trends continue and the negative trends slow their rate of growth in the next agricultural census, remains to be seen.

We must continue to work as a community to save farmland and support local foods, so our farmers here and abroad can profitably farm and create the best, most nutritious, local food.

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