Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Rice farmer Kang Han-sung poses on his farm in Seoul’s northwestern district of Gangseo, Thursday. His farm is located in Ogok-dong near Gimpo International Airport, and is one of Seoul’s last remaining rice farming areas. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Rice price increases, good harvests, and rising demand for locally produced premium brand rice help urban farmers feel their hard work pays off

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Farmer Kang Han-sung, 65, beamed with a smile of satisfaction, while checking with his tanned hands the ripening rice grains of the plants in his paddy, stretching far into the distance in Seoul’s northwest Ogok-dong, Gangseo District.

“Japanese rice varieties will be disappearing soon, as local Korean rice brands will replace them sooner or later,” he said Thursday, pointing to the plants in his rice paddies. “I mean, the quality of Korean rice has been getting better, and some strains are as good as the preferred Japanese rice, so in the near future, farmers will seriously consider planting premium varieties of Korean rice.”

Pleasantly chewy rice varieties originally developed in Japan, with rounder, glossier and firmer grains, have long made up Koreans’ favorite among the staple grain. According to Kang, thanks to agricultural scientists’ ceaseless work over the past few decades to upgrade Korean rice varieties, local consumers will be able to enjoy higher quality varieties developed here in the years to come.

Kang milled this year’s first rice harvest ― 20 “gama” or 80-kilogram bags of rice ― a week ago. “So far, so good,” he said.

The rice farmer was in an upbeat mood for a reason.

The price of rice has increased since last year, when climate change-driven floods resulted in shortages in the rice supply. The price per 80-kilogram bag of rice is currently 230,000 won, about 20 percent up from last year. The price of the same quantity of pesticide-free, organic rice is nearly 270,000 won. About 40 percent of the rice that Kang produces is organic. Like some other organic farmers, he uses apple snails in his rice paddies to control weeds and avoid using herbicides.

Over the past three decades, Kang has focused on growing rice in a 10-hectare area in northwestern Seoul that borders on three cities: Incheon, Bucheon and Gimpo.

The area was once part of the fertile Gimpo Plain, which was famous for some of the country’s highest quality rice. The Ogok-dong area became part of Seoul City a long time ago following the redistricting of cities and counties in the greater Seoul metropolitan area.

Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Kang shows his apple snails. As an herbicide-free rice farming method, he introduces the snails in his rice paddies to control weeds. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Ogok-dong is Seoul’s last remaining rice farming region. With Korea’s urban development boom that began in southern Seoul in the 1970s, most rice paddies in other parts of the metropolitan area were eventually developed into urban residential zones with high-rise apartment complexes and commercial districts.

Nevertheless, the rice paddies of Ogok-dong have remained relatively intact despite these waves of development, mainly because of their location. Situated near Gimpo International Airport, the area was deemed unfit to be residential. Bothered by the noise, residents left the area one after the other looking for better places to live.

Behind Kang’s farm, there used to be an elementary school. However, it closed, due to the lack of schoolchildren.

As it is sparsely populated, Ogok-dong consists of a uniquely urban-rural landscape. Unlike other crowded urban neighborhoods, the area is covered with rice paddies. In the sunny, windy fall weather, spacious rice paddies stretch out into the horizon along both sides of the unpaved, one-way roads.

For Kang, this year could not have been better. As the father of two adult children, a daughter who is married and a son who has a full-time job in Seoul, Kang no longer feels financial pressure to support his other family members. Through his farming of a premium rice variety, he and his wife are fortunate among other farmers to be able to earn an annual income sufficient enough to cover their annual expenditures.

“In the past, I envied my friends who had full-time, white-collar jobs. Now they say that they envy me, because I still have a secure job on my farm that I truly enjoy, even in my later years, and I am able to lead a life without financial worries,” he said.

Proudly surveying the gold-tinged rice plants ripening in his paddies, Kang looked content as an abundant harvest seems almost certain, as long as the current good weather conditions continue until mid-October, when he will finish this year’s harvest.

Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Ripening rice grains on Kang’s farm / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

There are approximately 100 urban farmers in Ogok-dong, growing rice and other vegetables.

Seoul’s Agricultural Technology Center (ATC) says an extensive 261-hectare area of rice paddies produces 1,227 tons of rice annually, as of last year.

Inside the lands, there is a 100-hectare area dedicated specifically to growing rice varieties collectively called, “Gyeongbokgung Rice.” Some 20 farmers who are affiliated with the Gyeongbokgung Rice Research Group cultivate varieties that are included in this premium, locally based rice brand. Unlike other farmers who grow crops based on their accumulated years of experience and embodied knowhow, these innovative farmers gather regularly for educational programs led by the ATC, to learn about advanced agricultural technology and recent trends in the breeding of new rice varieties. Kang currently serves as the head of this farmers’ group.

The launch of the Gyeongbokgung brand rice dates back to the early 2000s. Underpriced rice at that time triggered the initiative.

The quality of rice produced in this agricultural region was (and still is) as good as that of premium rice produced in the neighboring city of Gimpo. Despite similar soil conditions and the use of identical agricultural techniques, as well as water from a shared reservoir nearby, the price of the rice produced in Ogok-dong was lower than that of Gimpo. The ATC’s experts thus began to search for ways to make the area’s locally grown rice more competitive, as Seoul farmers felt that their hard work wasn’t paying off.

Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Kang is working, immersed in one of his rice paddies in Ogok-dong, Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

“Many of the country’s famous rice-growing counties and regions have their own brands and labels to promote their products. But rice produced in Seoul was sold without any particular brand at that time. So the people at the ATC agreed to create a name that could best represent the identity of this locally produced rice,” Han Jun, the consulting director at the ATC told The Korea Times.

While searching for the right name, he said, the name, “Gyeongbokgung,” popped up as an ideal candidate because of how the royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty is located in Seoul and historical documents show that the palace had a paddy for growing rice, and that the Joseon kings in person sometimes looked after it.

Together with the new Gyeongbokgung brand, the ATC designed its own labels and packaging for this rice farmed specifically in Ogok-dong, in order to make it more appealing to health-conscious consumers. The farmers have been growing rice without pesticides and herbicides there since 2016.

Additional efforts to raise the profile of the area’s locally produced rice have helped the Ogok-dong farmers sell their rice at competitive prices. Nicely packaged with the brand name on its bags, “Gyeongbokgung Rice” hit the local market and has become a hit among Seoul residents.

Demand for the area’s premium rice brand has gone up, as it has become one of gourmet consumers’ favorite brands. Increasing prices have subsequently helped farmers feel that their hard work is worth it.

“I heard that farmers have been able to focus fully on improving the quality of our crops, and that has helped Gyeongbokgung Rice gain a good reputation among consumers,” said Ha.

Farmer of Seoul's last remaining rice growing region in upbeat mood

Kang leans on a combine rice harvesting machine on his farm in Ogok-dong, Seoul. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

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