▲ A historical document depicting a Jeju government office called the Tangerine hall, where they would celebrate the harvest season. Photo courtesy Jeju City Hall.
Jeju Island’s famous tangerines fill the countryside from Seongsan to Seogwipo. There are many varieties of tangerines that grow throughout Jeju varying in taste, size, juiciness and color. It is common knowledge to local farmers and tangerine lovers that the best tangerines are a medium-size, rich orange-color and thinly peeled. As the primary local produce on the island, the tangerine is a wonderful souvenir for visitors. The mouth watering local fruit is also used to make an assortment of tangerine products, such as tangerine tea, tangerine Makkoli (rice wine), tangerine bubbly wine, and even rich tangerine chocolates. Since tangerines have played such an important role in Jeju’s agriculture, tourism, family life and history, it’s no wonder that this small delicious fruit has come to be an important symbol for Jeju.
The History of Tangerines on Jeju Island Tangerine trees have inhabited Jeju for centuries. Ancient Korean documents from the Shilla (57-1935), Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1897) dynasties all confirm the presence of tangerine trees within Jeju, although the exact time at which the fruit trees were first introduced to the island is unknown. During ancient times, the tangerine was rare and used primarily for tributary offerings, ancestor worship and shrine ceremonies for the royal family. One could not simply stroll through the countryside of Seogwipo and leisurely pick the fruit. Commoners were not allowed to, nor could they afford to taste the rare, juicy flavor of Jeju’s ancient tangerine.
These days, there are hundreds of types of tangerine trees on Jeju Island. Of these different types, the Onju tree is most common. The Onju were donated from Japan with the help of a Catholic French Priest named Esmile J. Taquet who planted just 15 Onju trees on Jeju Island around 1911. From those mere 15 trees an entire tangerine industry and culture was born.
The College Tree The tangerine industry on Jeju Island was born out of necessity. During the 1960s, most Jeju locals were incredibly poor, unemployed, and unable pay for even the most basic of necessities. The Jeju locals, fortunate enough to own one of the few tangerine farms left over from the Japanese occupation era, earned a great deal of money. Tangerine farming became an attractive job for the poor to pursue and thus, the profession quickly flourished and within a few years the island was full of tangerine farmers raising families from the money earned by selling their sweet fruit.
The tangerine business proved quite lucrative allotting families who had previously been unable to afford a good education were now able to send their children to school. It is common knowledge in Korea, that a child’s education is paramount. Back then, most of the farmers had not received a proper education and some could not even read Hangeul. Earning the money needed to provide a good education for their children was quite an honored accomplishment and in Jeju, University fees were often funded by the sale of tangerines. For this reason the Jeju tangerine tree is referred to as ‘The College Tree’.
▲ Below: The fruit of a year’s worth of labor ready to be picked and enjoyed. Photo by Arielle Ballou
Tangerine Farming Today Mi-jeong Hyun, a product of Jeju’s College Tree era, is currently an organic tangerine farmer in Susan-ri, Seongsan-eup. Her parents are Namwon tangerine farmers who put their children through Jeju’s National University with their hard-earned tangerine money. Hyun recalls growing up on the farm in Namwon; “We helped our parents every year. I’ve picked so many tangerines! Jeju farmers expect their children from elementary days to university days to help during the harvest season.” Today, Hyun’s parents still farm nearly 5,000 pyeong (a Korean measuring unit equivalent to nearly 3.3 square meters) of tangerine orchards. These days they hire many workers to pick the fruit during harvest, as their children are too busy to offer help.
Hyun knows from her years of experience how to pick a tangerine. After choosing a medium sized tangerine that has recently turned from a lime green color to a rich orange, snip the tree stem close to the top of the fruit with a pair of small clippers, then store the tangerines where their peels cannot be damaged.
Picking tangerines is not the only valuable skill Hyun learned from growing up on a typical Jeju tangerine farm. Nine years ago, when Hyun ventured to buy land in Seongsan, her husband’s hometown area, she hoped to improve the typical methods of farming she learned during her childhood. With an open mind, Hyun created a completely organic, chemical-free tangerine farm. Hyun uses only ground gingko leaves mixed with water and an effective microorganism solution to treat her trees for pests; a solution so gentle, she also uses it to heal diaper rash on her 3 year old daughter’s skin.
When she first purchased the orchard, Hyun farmed 1000 pyeong. However, organic tangerines sell at a high price, so she always has a steady yearly income from the fruit. Recently, Hyun downsized her tangerine farm to focus more heavily on another of her passions. Adjacent to her tangerine orchard sits Hyun’s pottery house where visitors can enjoy making Jeju traditional pottery.
Hyun’s tangerine farm is not the most typical on the island as all her trees are grown and maintained organically. Her childhood farm life and higher education, both provided by her tangerine farming parents, have opened doors for Hyun to operate an orchard above and beyond the status-quo.
Today there are hundreds of types of tangerine trees on Jeju Island that vary according to their harvest time, size, and taste. Jeju farmers have also created pre and post harvest tangerines to prevent a work overload during traditional harvest periods. Farmers have also created sweeter, sourer, and more delicious tangerines.
During these late autumn days, Jeju’s fields are full of ripening tangerines. Many tangerine farmers will allow visitors to pick the ripened fruit, fill a basket and take it home as a delicious cultural experience. Picking season, depending on the weather, runs from now until the end of December.
For more information on Hyun’s organic tangerines or her pottery house, contact her at 783-2009. She doesn’t speak much English, but encourages foreigners to visit her farm and pottery house, nevertheless
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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