Putting My Studies to the Test

Going to Korea has been a dream of mine since I was in middle school. My imagination would run wild, and I’d think about all the different ways I could make that dream come true. I could teach English there. I could be a diplomat. But, when all was said and done, I had never imagined that I would take the trip to Korea to work on an organic blueberry farm.

After years of reading and watching videos about Korean culture, I was finally able to get a first hand look at it. While there are still countless things to learn, some things stood out to me:

1.  Hand gestures- There are two main gestures that I had read about but was unsure of how prevalent they are in Korean culture. The first was how people call each other over. In America, you may just wave your hand in your direction in order to tell someone to come to you. But, in Korea, you do the same thing, but with your palm facing down. Like many Korean gestures, it is a matter of respect. Second, when people hand over money to pay for something (or to return change), the money is held in one hand with the arm stretched out. The other hand is used to support the elbow. I started doing this one subconsciously too.

2. The House- Perhaps my biggest regret about the trip is that I should have brought a pair of sandals. I knew I would have to take my shoes off before entering the house which for the most part was not a big deal. But, when I had to carry in groceries, I would put on my muddy boots to walk to and from the car but would have to sit down and take them off each trip I made. That’s not the easiest to do with hands full of bags.

Also with the house– I noticed the absence of three familiar components in an American home: a dryer, an oven, and a shower/bathtub. I saw this trend in a few places around Korea. For example, I stayed in some hostels and visited some houses. And most of the time, these things were not to be found. It didn’t really surprise me, but it took a little getting used to. I mean, technically there was a shower; it just wasn’t not an enclosed part of the bathroom like I was familiar with. Instead, the whole bathroom is the shower, so you can clean the walls and bathe at the same time! This would always require you to strategically place your clothes, so they don’t accidentally get soaked by a rogue handheld shower.

Oh yah, and hot water was hard to come by.

 

 

Highlights and My Work Schedule

I found this opportunity through a program called WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Before I started, I was told that my main responsibility would be collecting buckets from the workers in the fields every 40 minutes. Then, I would bring the buckets of blueberries back to the shed to weigh them and record the weights. While I did plenty of that– my day to day work was much more varied. For the first two weeks, I spent most of the day picking the blueberries myself. But, once blueberry season was in full swing, the seasonal employees started. From then, I would sort, clean, and package blueberries; as well as do other things around the farm like planting more bushes or watering. One day I was even in charge of entertaining a group of kindergarteners who were visiting the farm.

Our days would usually begin around 7 am. According to WWOOF, I am supposed to work 6 hours a day. Most days I would work more, until 5,6, or even 7 pm. But, it was ok– I didn’t have anything else to do most days! Before I’d start blueberry work however, Sachika and I were responsible for sweeping in the house and hanging up or folding the laundry that was left out to dry.

It was the WWOOFing experience that everyone who WWOOFs should have. The schedule was clearly laid out, all the other rules were followed, and the hosts were so kind and generous. The farm is owned by an older married couple who speak as much English as I do Korean (read: not much), but their son who lives in California comes for the summer to help out. With him and the other WWOOFer from Japan, communicating was not an issue. One of the most memorable aspects of my time in Korea was the hospitality and generosity I expressed by my hosts. They were nice to me– making me vegan lunches and taking us out to dinner very regularly– but it was how they treated the seasonal workers that really stood out. The other WWOOFer Sachika told me that, like in America, immigrant farm workers often endured low pay and poor working conditions. It was unfortunately a common issue around South Korea. But, at this farm, the workers who were all from Thailand and Myanmar, were like part of the family. They would join us for a home-cooked lunch every day, and often came out to dinner with us. Tae, the farmers’ son, drove them all to and from work every day and would take them shopping for clothes.

Reflecting

 

Right before I left, Tae asked me to write some notes about my experience on the farm. He wanted to know what I liked and what could be improved. I tried to convey to him that I had a wonderful time with virtually no real complaints. But, he insisted I be very critical, to not hold back. As part of my reflection in this blog post, I will explain what criticisms I came up with:

To preface: In my opinion, WWOOF is more than just an organization that promotes organic farming practices around the world. It also has some other environmentally-minded pillars to its mission. One, it supports general environmental conversation, like preserving resources and biodiversity. Two, they aspire to build local food systems that can provide healthy, organic food to all. Both of my criticisms showcase how the farm fails to uphold the values of WWOOF that I have mentioned.

  1. Since there has been a population shift from farms to cities in South Korea, the government offers incentives for people to return to the countryside and farm. Perhaps the biggest is cheap electricity. So, the farm took advantage of this and never turned off the lights in the storage shed, the biggest building on the property. Sure, it would not have saved them money to turn them off at night (since the bill was about $3 a month), but it still uses up resources which contradicts WWOOF’s sustainability values.
  2. This one is a little trickier to articulate. Yes, this farm is a family owned farm. And yes, they adhere to organic practices. But, it does not have much intent on strengthening the local food system. Why? Because blueberries are not a popular Korean food and thus are really expensive. They are sometimes inaccessible for lower income, working class people in an area that is populated mostly by farmers. These blueberries are meticulously selected and sometimes even hand delivered directly to consumers in Seoul. While it is isn’t wrong of them to be in the business to make money (market price is $17 a kilo), I would have liked to been on a farm that tried harder to break down the barrier between income and having access to healthy, organic food in their community.

All that being said, my time in Korea was fantastic– honestly, a dream come true. Tae and his family are opening a café on the property. They told me I have a coupon for free coffee for life there– so I have to go back someday!

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