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Growing greens in the city

Yang Hee-sook (right) and her family visit their allotment at the Daewon Weekly Farmstay in Seocho-gu on October 6 to take care of their cabbages. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Publication Date : 13-10-2012


With beads of sweat dripping from their foreheads and the tips of their noses, groups of people work on a Saturday morning watering vegetables and crops, pulling out weeds and scattering organic fertilizer over fields.

If it wasn’t for the wall of skyscrapers in the not-so-distant background, the scene could be mistaken for a typical farm field in the countryside.

Yet, this is Nodeul Island in the Han River, right in the middle of Seoul.

On 23,000 square metres of land here, where the Seoul Metropolitan Government had once planned to build an opera house, lies the city’s new dream of a greener future.

“Seoul promotes urban farming for wide-ranging benefits in community building, environment and citizens’ quality of life,” said Song Im-bong, director of an urban farming department at Seoul Metropolitan Government.

More citizens are taking a look at urban agriculture as they seek out locally grown fresh produce and opportunities to reconnect with the earth, get their children to like healthy foods and have some physical exercise.

Kwon Young-hoo, professor at Korea National College of Agriculture, said urban farms could bring about a vitalising effect to city life.

“Besides adding greenery to cities, such farms are a good way of engaging retired seniors and provide educational opportunities for children,” he said.

“They also create peaceful places for relaxation in often stressful city life,” he added.

Farms like the one on Nodeul Island are called weekend farms because growers usually went there on weekends.

They used to be located on the outskirts of the city, but this is changing as more farms sprout up in inner cities ― in vacant lots, near railroad tracks or on rooftops of concrete buildings.

One of the earliest such farms is the Daewon Weekly Farmstay in Seocho, a residential district in southern Seoul.

Kim Dae-won, a 10th-generation farmer, started it in 1992 with his wife Choi Sung-hee. Before then, he and his wife grew rice and vegetables just like his ancestors had since the 1700s.

“I felt that we couldn’t make a living by farming with just two of us,” he said.

They first lent a small portion of their land to a friend who had gotten sick. Doctors told her that she would need at least a year to fully recover from her illness. However, she recovered within six months while working on the farm, Kim said. “I learned that being surrounded by nature can even help fight illness.”

The small farm they inherited from theirancestors has now expanded to 23,000 square meters, cultivated by more than 1,500 people.

Around 700 more are on the waiting list. One can rent a 10-square-metre plot of land for an annual membership fee of 130,000 won ($117).

“The people farming here often say they feel refreshed and become much closer with their family members,” his wife Choi said.

Park Geun-hee has been farming there for about a year now. Lettuce, cabbages and radishes grow on her plot.

At first, she thought that it would be good for her children to understand where food comes from. A year of farming, however, changed her too, she said.

“After learning how hard it is to raise produce, I never throw it away recklessly.”

She now comes to tend to her precious veggies, once a week with children and two to three times a week alone.

For Yang Hee-sook, who also grows lettuce and cabbages at Daewon, it almost feels like a picnic to be on the farm.

“The air is fresh and I feel refreshed,” she said, adding that she comes there almost other day.

At the city-run Nodeul Island farm, teamwork and community spirit is an essential part of the experience, just like in rural agricultural communities.

Only three families as a group, not individuals, can apply for a block of farming land there. Each group is given 6.6 square metres of land there to cultivate for an annual fee of 20,000 won.

After finishing the day’s work, growers often have a meal together, accompanied by makgeolli, Korea’s traditional rice wine, and kimchi, just like real farmers do.

“I feel a sense of community as people here help each other,” said Gang Han-tae, 44.

When he was too busy and couldn’t find time to look after his vegetables, his neighbors on the farm helped out, he said.

15-year-old Gang Min-jeong says she enjoys coming to Nodeul with her mother.

“Many people around my age spend most of their spare time on digital gadgets. But coming outside and taking care of vegetables makes me feel good,” she said.

The farm itself is environment-friendly. No chemical fertilizer is allowed. A bicycle is a major means to come to the island where there is no parking lot.

Last Saturday, a traditional rice-harvesting event was held there, with participants including foreign tourists and students.

Sally Madiba, 22, from Botswana visited the island with 60 other foreign students on a field trip organized by a U.S.-based educational exchange program.

“I have farmed in Botswana, but not in a city. It is interesting,” Madiba said.


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