Jeju farming – island life

We arrived in Jeju rather earlier than our WWOOFing manager, Eric, had anticipated and he was still on the farm when he got our message. Eric had been the subject of some debate – what would he look like? Was he Korean and was Eric simply his Anglicised name? We killed time in a café in arrivals and got rather well acquainted with a very cute Korean baby girl, who kept peering and beaming at us. As usual, Luke’s hairy features were a hit. Her mother explained to us that they had been on a family holiday in Jeju to celebrate her 1st birthday, and showed us photographs of her party. There was a great feast and she was dressed in a traditional Korean gown and looking very pleased with herself. First birthday celebrations are a major event in Korea; the ceremonies and rituals are to wish the child good health and a long life.

Eric duly arrived in a purple SUV, and we discovered that he was, in fact, a young American chap, who was passionate about environmental issues. He had spent time in Guatemala working on an Earthship project (sustainable eco-houses made from recycled materials) and time in Vietnam working for a biogas company. He immediately made us feel at ease, and any worries about our first WWOOFing experience began to dissipate. However, one of the first things he made clear was that the farm itself was in quite a state of disarray. Eric had arrived on the farm when the previous manager was still in charge, but the farm had not been reaching its full potential. Eric had intended to work with him to help move things forward, but the farm’s owner, a Seoul businesswoman, had decided it would be best if Eric took sole charge, which placed him in a rather difficult situation, although one full of exciting possibilities.

Our first stop was Eric’s flat in Jeju-si, where we encountered three enormous teddy bears. He jokingly said that it was because he had lot of girlfriends, before explaining that the bears had all been found in rubbish dumps. Jeju is famed as an island for lovers, and many Korean couples come here on romantic weekends away or for their honeymoon. Giant cuddly bears are a favourite way for lovers to express devotion to one another, but unfortunately the bears themselves often do not survive the honeymoon period. Eric hates to see waste and decided to rescue the bears, who looked rather content snuggled up next to one another on the sofa.

We went for our first Korean barbecue at a restaurant across the road from his flat. This would rank amongst my favourite meals so far. The wonderful thing about a Korean barbecue is the sheer volume of greenery! The hot coals are stacked in the middle of the table, below the griddle and a chimney is pulled down to take the smoke away. They brought out a plate of very thinly sliced pork, several bowls of kimchi, a large bowl of hot broth, rice, vegetables and a long platter of salad leaves, all beautifully arranged in a row. These ranged from your usual lettuce and cabbage leaves to dandelion and sesame leaves, which were rather tangy and aniseed-like. The meat sizzled away along with cloves of garlic, and when ready, you took a salad leaf and layered it with meat, vegetables, kimchi and sauces, bundled it all up and tried to stuff it in your mouth all at once! Delicious! The salad leaves take the place of bread, and they are definitely a flavoursome improvement on the soft rolls you get at British barbecues, and much healthier too.

He told us a little more about the farm we were to be working on. The main produce is tea, but Jeju black pigs and chickens are also bred on the farm and play an important role in the tea production process. There used to be other animals on the farm as well, but cut backs had been necessary. The growth of tea plants is encouraged by the manure produced by the pigs and chickens and the rooting of pig noses and scratching of chicken feet help to strengthen the roots whilst helping keep the surrounding area free of weeds. This means that no artificial fertilisers are needed and so the farm is organic. The current herd of pigs is quite small – only one boar, one breeding sow, Betty, and two litters of piglets, and when we arrived it was quite difficult to see the tea plants for the firegrass. The firegrass was beautiful though – really tall, with tips like feather dusters that were really soft when brushed across your face. In autumn it turns an orangey red colour, but we arrived in winter as the colour had faded to a wheaten yellow. There was still snow on the ground and occasional flurries and the wind was icy as it swept through the farm. The pigs, like all Jeju pigs, were all black, and they seemed inquisitive, but wary. They were still quite skittish as they hadn’t got used to a feeding routine yet, although Eric had started to feed them rejected noodles from a noodle factory to supplement their diet whilst things were getting sorted out. They were all able to escape from the ramshackle pen and wander through the tea plantation as they wished, and their bedding area was pretty miserable and muddy, so one of our tasks was to cut down some firegrass for them to nest in and do some repairs of the fence so their roaming could be regulated.

The surrounding landscape was quite bizarre – flat areas punctuated by small pointed hills, known as oreum. These are parasitic volcanic cones, and Jeju has some 368 of them. Hallasan is a dormant shield volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea, which occupies the centre of the island. Shield volcanoes are so named because their profile resembles a shield lying on the ground. They are formed from solidification of highly fluid lava flows, which can travel long distances, creating a wide, low mountainous structure.The oreum were formed by eruptions along the unstable flank of the volcano, with the lava solidifying into the peculiar hills you can see today. Underground, there are numerous lava tubes. Eruption from a magma chamber causes molten rock to leave in channels. The centre of these channels remains very hot, but the outer parts cool and solidify, forming a wall around the flow of magma. When the flow ceases, molten rock at the surface may flow back down the channel, leaving a tunnel behind – this is a lava tube. (Magma and lava are basically the same thing – magma is molten rock found in the earth’s crust; lava is molten rock on the earth’s surface).

The house at the farm was a metal building, clad with brick and wooden planking. There was no central heating, save for underfloor heating upstairs which we used whilst sleeping, and the house still had some draughty areas that needed fixing, so it was pretty chilly. It was still a bit bare inside when we first arrived, but the open plan kitchen/dining/lounge area really had potential to become quite homely. That first night, Eric surprised us by getting out a film projector and screen and we sat in our makeshift cinema with mugs of hot tea and watched a thought-provoking and moving documentary about the Edhi Foundation. This Pakistani charity was set up by Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1951, and provides a 24 hour emergency service to help orphans, provide free medical care, legal aid and free shrouding and burial amongst other things. The film followed the stories of a group of lost boys and their journeys to find their families again. The volunteers that work there do a wonderful job in difficult circumstances.

After the film, we headed upstairs, having put the underfloor heating on so our bed on the floor was nice and toasty. We hadn’t quite got the setting right though, as I woke in the middle of night feeling like I was being boiled alive!

The next morning, we talked about the logo design for the farm over breakfast and Luke started to work on some of Eric’s ideas on his laptop. Eric then showed us into the tea barn, where there was a room stacked with boxes of dried tea leaves in plastic bags, all dated and typed like a connoisseur’s wine cellar. He told us that our first task was to sniff bin liners of tea and decide whether they were rejects or not. I think we were both a bit anxious that our noses wouldn’t be up to task and had visions of carelessly discarding a vintage batch of tea worth hundreds of pounds. However, we needn’t have worried. After a couple of sniffs, it was clear which teas were keepers and which had gone bad, due to the musty smell. The rejects amounted to several kilos, and were to be sent to a chicken farmer on the mainland. I’m not quite sure what the chickens do with tea leaves, but I hope they enjoy it.

With plans for a lot of renovation work, it was necessary for us to buy some new tools. Once we were equipped with boiler suits, a sledge hammer and gloves, Eric told us about a plan he had for building a desk out of piping and a huge slab of hardwood he had found at the farm. We spent about forty minutes in the hardware shop fiddling with the piping as if it was a giant Meccano set, before settling on a design. It didn’t look anything like a sensible plumbing system, so goodness knows what the owners thought the crazy foreigners were up to!

We collected sacks of noodles for the pigs and went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for ourselves. I was delighted with the salad leaf section – just like in the restaurant, the leaves were beautifully overlapped, this time with icy steam wafting over them. Is it wrong to get this excited about salad? It was too dark to do any other farm work when we got back, save for feeding the pigs, so we made a hearty soup and talked some more about Eric’s vision for the farm. Eventually they hope to have a café onsite, increase the pig herd size and have the farm as an open enterprise where visitors can look around and learn about organic farming and how by keeping livestock on the land, the soil quality can be improved.

Eric is adamantly in favour of a farming technique called intensive rotational grazing. This is a broad category and something I dimly remember learning about at vet school, but the system he was particularly advocating is that devised by a man called Allan Savory, and is more specifically known as holistic management planned grazing. This topic is going to be quite difficult to put across in a nutshell, but I shall try. The idea behind intensive rotational grazing is to divide land into small sections and move the grazing herd on a regular basis. This should result in grazing becoming less selective and the quality of the forage improves as a result. It also has the benefit of leaving parasites behind as the animals move to the new land.

Now try and think about this more broadly. The vast deserts of the world are increasing in size, a process known as desertification. This loss of grassland results in reduced take up of carbon dioxide, and higher CO2 levels contribute to global warming. We have lost significant numbers of ‘natural’ grazers, such as wildebeest in Africa and bison in the USA. These animals exist in enormous herds and are known as keystone species. They (and their predators) play an important role in the maintenance of the grasslands they inhabit; as their numbers dwindle and their behaviour changes as a result of this, the soil quality of the vast plains decreases and the deserts gain ground.

The intention of holistic management planned grazing is to create a farming system whereby livestock can fill the role of the keystone species, by encouraging them to graze in a way which is beneficial for the land, thereby taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowing the global warming effect. It has been shown that land can be reclaimed from the desert in this way, and advocates are spreading the technique to ‘conventional’ farms. Some believe that it is the only way to save the planet!

There is a camp of environmentalists that would argue that farming, and cattle farming in particular, is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide, and many people have become vegetarian because of these concerns. Certainly this may be true given that much current livestock management doesn’t even involve allowing cattle to graze on pastures, but relies on feeding concentrates like corn. However, if the holistic group are to be believed, a seismic shift in the way we manage our farms and grasslands would mean that livestock farming is actually necessary to reverse the worrying changes we are seeing. Of course there is a lot of controversy surrounding this subject; consider this a brief introduction, do read into it and see what you think! Suffice to say that this is something Eric is passionate about, and he would love to incorporate some of these practices into the Jeju farm and introduce this concept of farming to South Koreans.

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2 thoughts on “Jeju farming – island life

  1. Ha ha! But, Debbie, what you don’t realise is that I am in fact, chaotically organised. Luke says I am like a quantum computer. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds cool, so I’ll go with it…

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