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“Barley-fed Korean Beef Can Beat American Beef”

Posted April. 27, 2007 07:30,   


“When we heard that Chilean grapes were about to be imported, we were really anxious. We switched to watermelons, which were the key to our success,” said 61-year-old Choi Chang-hwan, who used to grow grapes four years ago in Maengdong-myeon, Eumseong-gun, North Chungcheong province.

In 2002, when the Korea-Chile FTA was concluded, grape prices were down from 12,000 won to 7,000 won per box. Choi found himself in dire straits, thinking “Is this the end of the road?”

He thought about which crop could beat foreign competition. He realized that grapes can be kept fresh for a relatively long period but watermelon cannot, and thus, his mind was made up.

He owns 15 greenhouses which produce some 10,000 watermelons each year. He makes 100 million won a year. His success story is a testament to the fact that every crisis bears a golden opportunity.

Preempt with quality produce-

Most farmers in Maengdong-myeon, where Choi lives, used to grow rice and pepper ten years ago. Now, 80% of farmers grow high-quality watermelons. They live by the motto: “Low quality produce does not pay.”

Right after being harvested, watermelons are checked for sugar content at a communal sorting center. Those that do not meet the relevant criteria do not receive the “Dalolchan” mark – the trademark of high-quality watermelons produced in this particular area.

They hold great promotional events: “Eating contests” and “seed-blowing contests.” Eumseong-gun subsidizes portion of delivery cost for produces ordered online.

Because of their high quality, watermelons produced here is 2,000-3,000 won more expensive than others. Your correspondent asked farmers, “You can make more money by compromising the sugar content and selling more?” They said “That way, all we earn is a cheap image and bad reputation.”

Farmers looking forward to KORUS FTA-

“If KORUS FTA takes effect, we are confident that we can beat Japanese pears in the U.S. market. I initially took to the street, voicing my opposition to the Korea-Chile FTA, but we have overcome the difficulties that came with the FTA,” said 64-year-old Lee Min-woo, who has a 12,000 pyeong pear orchard in Eumbong-myeon, Asan City, South Chungcheong Province.

He thinks his pears have a competitive edge over Japanese ones. He produces ten tons of pears annually and exports two tons of them to the U.S.

Of course, there is problem. In the U.S. market, Japanese pears that are sour and soft are more popular than Korean pears that are sweet and hard.

Lee said “Because of a lack of promotion, the main consumers of Korean pears are Korean Americans. If we promote Korean pears well through sampling, we can be successful.”

As such, not all farmers think of the KORUS FTA as a ‘trial,’ which is true for ranches, who will be hit the hardest by the trade deal.

Jeonbuk Hanwoo Cooperation, which comprises some 600 ranches in North Jeolla Province, breeds Korean cows using Chongche barley as animal feed. They provide their beef at 15 rancher’s markets in the Seoul metropolitan area.

They directly sell to consumers so their price is 30% lower. Because of the special feed, developed by Rural Development Administration, their beef is of high quality.

Administrator Jang Seong-un said “Because of our beef’s quality and safety, we are not worried about U.S. beef.” The Cooperative plans to hold a Chongche Barley Hanwoo festival during this May.

Crisis for Korean agriculture? No, it is an export opportunity-

Paprika is called “jewelry of vegetables” because of its beautiful color. This vegetable is not well known in Korea but it takes up 70% of Japanese market.

In the past, the paprika market in Japan was dominated by the Netherlands. But Korean farmers took the market from the Dutch because Korea is geographically closer to Japan and therefore Korean paprika can be kept fresh for longer.

It is expected that the KORUS FTA will create such success stories in greater numbers.

Recently, in a report called ‘Ways to expand Korean exports to the U.S.,” Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Cooperation pointed out 20 agricultural crops including paprika, pine mushroom, green tea, sweet persimmon and red pepper paste that have good potential as U.S. exports.

54-year-old Lim Hwa-chun has been cultivating a 100,000 pyeong green tea field for ten years in Miryeok-myeon, Boseong-gun, South Jolla Province. She is happy these days after receiving positive responses from American buyers in an export meeting organized by South Jolla Province.

She not only grows green tea herself, but also runs a 1,000 pyeong factory, where green tea that is drinkable with water is extracted. The factory is called Boseong Green Tea Tech Corp.

She started exporting to the U.S. in 2005. Last year she exported green tea extract worth 100 million won. With the FTA, green tea product exports are expected to increase.

With an investment of 50 million won, she is trying to have her products certified by the American Organic Farming Association. She said “I need to do this because organically-grown produce is popular in the U.S. market. Solid support should come from the Korean government.”

jarrett@donga.com sanjuck@donga.com