▲ At left, a common sight at this time of year, farmers load up crates of oranges destined for domestic and international markets. At right, a Seogwipo orchard. Photos by Jessica Sicard
Situated just outside of Seogwipo City is a citrus wonderland, a maze of small family owned and operated mandarin farms amongst picturesque rolling hills. Winter is the best time to harvest mandarins, so these farmers are busiest at this time of the year. Jeju Island is known for its delicious mandarin oranges, but rarely in the spotlight are the masterminds behind the delicious fruit.
In an effort to realize the hard work and dedication that goes into mandarin farming, Oh Seung Hoon, 44, agreed to give The Jeju Weekly a glimpse into his life as a mandarin farmer. Often farms are passed on in families from generation to generation, and such is the case for Oh.
While Oh started farming full time in March 2010, he already had a lifetime of mandarin farming experience. Oh’s farm previously belonged to his father, so he spent his childhood and weekends as an adult helping his parents run the farm with his four sisters. Oh’s father was a very busy man because he also had a job working for the government, so his mother, Ko Yok Hwa, was in charge of most of the mandarin operations. Before Oh’s parents owned the farm, it belonged to his grandfather who grew sweet potatoes.
Today, the Oh family farm has three varieties of oranges. The first type is the common tangerine (700 pyeong/.57 acres), and the ideal times for harvesting them is late fall and early winter. As we interviewed Oh, he was packing tangerines in boxes, and just to be clear, tangerines are a subgroup of mandarin oranges. The second variety of oranges is the Hallabong oranges (1,300 pyeong /1.06 acres), a very high-quality orange that is much bigger than mandarin oranges and have become a typical Korean gift on Jeju Island during the late winter. The third type is a new variety of mandarin orange (800 pyeong/.65 acres) from Japan, and Oh plans to harvest these for the first time when his trees are big enough in two years.
Oh mentioned that mandarins are not native to Jeju Island but came from skilled mandarin farmers in Japan. Every year, Oh harvests approximately 10,000 kilograms of tangerines and 7,000 kilograms of Hallabong oranges.
Oh uses a special method of farming called Tyvek, a technique that spreads Tyvek films that shut out water and permit air flow in the ground, ultimately making the tangerines much sweeter. This method was introduced by the Jeju Agriculture Research and Extension Services in 2001. In addition to using Tyvek, Oh believes in using minimal pesticides and nurturing his trees as naturally as possible. The average sugar content of Oh’s tangerines is 11 to 13 brix. Brix is a unit used in measuring the quality of fruit, and Oh’s tangerines are considered the highest quality.
▲ Photo by Jessica Sicard
While fall and winter are the busiest times of the year for Oh, he spends his entire year preparing for the harvest. Oh believes that his orange trees should be treated like a woman, so after they give birth, in other words, after the trees are harvested, they should be fed well, or fertilized. During the spring, Oh must trim the trees, giving them the ideal shape to allow sunshine to reach crucial parts of the trees. The trees are fertilized again at this time.
During the summer, it is important to spray pesticides because the combination of emerging fruit and heat attracts many bugs. The trees are sprayed with pesticides 10 times a year, but Oh does this six times during the summer. Early fall is spent making final preparations for the harvest, and then the harvesting season begins in November.
Oh hires additional help during the harvest season, usually relatives and neighbors.
In addition to providing Jeju Island and mainland Korea with delicious and high quality oranges, Oh exports many of his oranges internationally, primarily to Mongolia and the United States. Oh mentioned it is increasingly difficult to export to the United States due to strict farming regulations. However, the Korean government provides grants for Korean mandarin farmers who are willing to cooperate with said regulations.
This grant accounts for 50 percent of Oh’s farming expenses, but he anticipates that Korean farmers will need more financial help from the government once the new free trade agreement between the FDA and the Korean government takes effect.
Soon, oranges from the United States will be sold on Jeju Island, and this creates harsh competition for the local mandarin farmers who are already struggling financially as the cost of farming is increasing but the price of oranges remains the same.
The increasing financial and physical challenges that go with farming has made many farmers on Jeju Island reconsider passing the family farm to future generations, Oh said. As most of his income arrives once a year, it is difficult to budget, especially since there is very little side work available, if there’s any work at all. Oh’s wife, however, has a regular job, and that helps the family immensely, especially in funding their children’s hagwon (private academy) expenses, amounting to approximately 1.1 million won (US$950) per month.
With all of the challenges that farming entails, Oh says that he gets great satisfaction and personal fulfillment from farming as long as he generates enough income from the harvest to make ends meet. He said that consumers of his oranges are like family, and he hopes to continue providing the highest quality of oranges to South Korea and the world.
(Interpretation by Kim Jung Lim)
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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