Ugly fruit and the struggle of organics in South Korea
Winter in South Korea comes with a very particular set of guiding principles. One is bound to slip on ice at least once, and if a box of tangerines from Jeju Island has not been ordered and thoroughly consumed, winter has not yet arrived.
Citrus grown in Jeju also have their very particular set of guidelines. They must possess skin that is not too thick nor too thin, and must be easily peelable. They should also be neither too small nor too big and also be the perfect shade of orange, not too yellow nor too red. Tangerines that do not fit these guidelines are rejected by both producer and consumer, making conventional farming very popular and organic farming a nigh impossible task.
Mr. Park*, who calls himself a “delicious philosopher,” endeavoured to challenge convention when he started organic farming 15 years ago. After more than a decade developing his crop and finally producing something on the verge of being marketable, the notion of the “perfect fruit” continued to cast a shadow on his business. The strict cultural guidelines governing the aesthetics of fruits nudged him ever closer to conventional agriculture despite the vigour with which he pushed the boundaries of organic farming in his early days. His irresolute response to convention revealed the cultural force at play in the struggle to push organic forward in South Korea, and in that, the hypocrisies that have been allowed to exist.
*Names and personal information have been modified in order to protect the identity of the farmer.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Park was working as a computer programmer in Seoul. Although he was living a life envied by most Koreans, the concrete jungle in which he found himself tired him. He yearned for a more meaningful life, and he found his purpose when a co-worker introduced him to effective microorganism farming (EM Farming). He and his wife were fascinated by the possibility of cultivating land in a way that would support rather than destroy it in a symbiotic relationship between man and earth. Soon after, they moved from Seoul to Mr. Park’s hometown on Jeju Island.
Following their dreams of EM farming, they tried organic methods in their first years — eschewing the use of plastics, pesticides, and herbicides — but reality was far from the future of which they had dreamed. Because their land was unsuitable for farming or for other reasons beyond their knowledge, their first crop turned out not only aesthetically displeasing, but tasteless as well. The skin was pockmarked with natural growths and discolouration, and lacked the sweetness expected of tangerines from Jeju. Mr. Park and his wife cried three times that year.
The first time, they cried because their crop had failed to reach expectations.
The second time, they cried because no one would buy the tangerines they so preciously grew.
The third time, they cried because they had to watch their crop rot.
Producing citrus in Jeju is by no means an easy task despite the island’s reputation as a vacationer’s paradise. Although the island’s suitability for growing citrus is asymmetrical, the standard remains the same. Customers and farmers alike demand perfection in size, colour, skin thickness, and taste — so much so that anything less than perfect is immediately thrown out. In order to produce the perfect fruit, citrus farmers like Mr. Park are often forced to plant a specific species of tangerines. With a limited variety of species always comes increased susceptibility to vermin and disease, a problem not easily solved without the help of chemicals. His crops were no different.
In order to avoid the pain of that first harvest, he decided abandoned organic farming for plastics and low pesticides use in subsequent years. Once he made the change, his fruits began to taste better and took on a more pleasing appearance. He began selling his produce by creating a cooperative with other tangerine farmers and even set up a direct sales outlet in Busan one year, but all of the methods failed because he was unable to generate a substantial revenue stream. People did not yet then know about the benefits of consuming produce grown with minimal pesticide and herbicide use and were unwilling to pay the premium necessary to cover the production cost. He had to reduce the price of his tangerines to well below production cost in order to spare them the fate of rotting in the yellow, plastic buckets in which they were collected.
Even as his business started gaining momentum, selling 1000 boxes per season compared to the 10 he sold in his first year, his conclusion as a businessman was that it was impossible to make a living as an organic farmer. The only way to turn a profit was to create added value through processing.
For the past six years, he has been turning his various citrus crops: tangerines (감귤), oranges (천혜향), and hallabong (한라봉) into cookies, chips, juice, teas, and syrups. His business has been growing exponentially since then, and he has plans to expand it even further in the years to come. A new warehouse for processing larger volumes of citrus will be finished by the end of this year, and he is planning on adding more products to his already wealthy lineup.
While his business turned out to be a roaring success from a financial standpoint, I realized after a week of working alongside Mr. Park and his staff that the method in which he found success was less so a story of triumph for the organic movement but rather an example of its shortcomings.
Last December, in the midst of harvesting season, I was invited to Mr. Park’s farm to photograph and to write about his process as a farmer. The collaboration started off well, and I was allowed to take images inside their processing room, which had never been allowed before. He encouraged me to take images of the process in its entirety, never once stopping me or asking me to delete anything. He revealed to me in detail about his history and motivations as he was impressed by the work I had previously done. At the end of the week, I showed him the 230 photos I had chosen, detailing the process of turning tangerines into dried chips and juice. He started the conversation by saying that they were “good photos” but then transitioned into demanding that I delete them all, hovering over my shoulder as I erased the images off of my computer and camera.
The photos were nothing controversial. They truthfully showed the process of cutting up the fruits into slices and the prosaic work it took to organize and to dry them. Other photos showed how each individual tangerine had to be peeled by hand so that the skin could be dried to make tea and the flesh into juice. They were certainly of a more intimate lens than to which Mr. Park was accustomed, and perhaps that was what scared him.
“You need to delete them because maybe paparazzi will report me for… unsanitary practices. My customers maybe see the picture and think it is dirty,” he explained to me. I was shocked.
As a home industry, his processing area was by no means at the standard of a lab, but it would have definitely passed muster with anyone who came to inspect it. I pressed on, trying to make sense of what he was saying. Dodging question after question with unsatisfactory nonanswers, he finally revealed his greatest concern upon seeing the photos. “[The tangerines are] ugly,” he confessed, “so if customer see it, they don’t [want to] buy it.”
The secret that he had hidden from his customers was that the fruits that he processed were ones that did not fit into the ideal image of a tangerine. Some were slightly green, maybe a shade of orange that was too intense, or pockmarked by the sometimes harsh Jeju environment — the proverbial ugly fruit. Because they would have never sold as fresh fruit and would have been immediately tossed by other farmers, he processed them in order for them to not go to waste. Processing was an extension of his goal to farm without waste, and being so satisfied with the work that he had done, he bestowed many titles upon himself: Creator of Sustainable, Abundant Energy; Farm Life Designer; and Energy Philosopher. Instead of encouraging true sustainability, I saw in his refusal to allow others to examine the reality of the processing process, a dichotomy between his goals and the cultural realities in which he penned himself.
The reality that he refused to contest by way of processing was the continued stigma surrounding less-than-perfect fruit. Instead of encouraging people to abandon the notion that ugly fruit are inedible, which has worked wonders overseas to reduce agricultural waste, he used processing as a way to veil his fruit’s imperfections. Although he was living a “wholesome, ecological life,” as he so often encouraged, by hiding the realities of agriculture, he was unknowingly robbing others of that possibility. By hiding ugly fruit and the waste behind processing techniques, he was reinforcing the type of aesthetic-driven waste that ran against his own goals as a farmer.
Knowing the success of ugly fruit overseas, I challenged his notion that such fruit would not sell in Korea. Younger folks, foreigners, and the progressive crowd would certainly be interested in his wares. I believed that with the right marketing, the overwhelming desire for perfect produce could be dismantled. Despite the evidence I presented, I was met with immediate disagreement. He put it simply, “people only want perfect,” and in that statement, he revealed a sad truth about Korean culture. Korean culture, like many other East Asian cultures, is all about “face” or the outer appearance.
Although from reality, magazines and television shows in Korea often depict farming as a pure, almost sterile operation albeit with more charm and wholesomeness. The truth is more humble: radishes do not always grow straight, and even the healthiest of chickens sometimes get nibbled on by the occasional rat. But no one, not even a pioneer like Mr. Park, has had the strength to reveal the truth for fear of losing customers. Koreans value innovation so long as success is guaranteed and so more often than not, the possibility of failure grips them, and they retreat from the front line.
Instead of challenging the status quo by openly supporting ugly fruit, Mr. Park transformed from being an organic farmer to being one that used low amounts of pesticides in order to produce fruit that fit the imagination of the public. For the fruits that he continued to farm organically, the discoloured and pockmarked, he hid the imperfections behind processing. He was able to reduce waste on his own farm by ignoring the true root of the problem — Korea’s obsession with perfection. Although a preference not exclusive to Korean consumers, his stalwart response as an organic farmer was the most problematic point. Rather than trying to reduce waste by changing people’s perception of food, he penned himself into the existing cultural norms for fear of his business failing. Money is an important reality that cannot be ignored, but by using the veil of sustainability and eco-friendliness to continue a damaging lie told by conventional agriculture, he perpetuated the system he stood so firmly against in his early days as a farmer.
Mr. Park’s problem was not simply an issue of economics but also the undeniable rule of culture that he, like many other Korean organic farmers, feared to meet openly. This inability to question convention has continued to haunt not only tangerine production in Jeju but also the organic movement in general. Mr. Park’s decision to hide behind processing does save fruit that would have otherwise been left to rot but also reinforces the idea that produce should be perfect. Instead of bringing consumers closer to the origins of their food, the processing of fruits under false pretenses merely continues the cycle of waste, and organics is reduced to a marketing ploy.
Being a trailblazer in a society that values conformity above all else is no easy task, but by refusing to reject sub par agricultural practices and to challenge the cultural norms of perfection that are in part to blame for food waste, such destructive methods of production and consumption are given permission to continue.