Korean Organic Farming: “The Jewel of Great Price”
The Asia Institute
January 25, 2012
The Flower of the Dharma Sutra (Fahuajing 法華經) includes a remarkable tale entitled “The Jewel of Great Price” (無價寶珠) that describes quite accurately the state of organic farming in Korea today as a forgotten treasure.
In “The Jewel of Great Price,” a man is given a jewel by a friend as a present. But because the friend sews the jewel safely into the lining of the man’s jacket while he is sleeping and does not have the chance to tell him about it before parting early the next morning, the man suffers through terrible deprivations over years, unaware that he has this priceless jewel right in his own jacket. Only later when he meets up again with his friend does he learn of the treasure that he was carrying with him.
The tale is a parable for the Buddha nature that all people carry with them, but is forms a perfect analogy for the tremendous tradition of organic farming in East Asia that has been much ignored as a result of the push for modernization. As we look forward to an entirely new set of challenges in this century, we can see the potential that the ancient tradition of organic farming has to play a critical role, with a few modifications, in the future.
The agronomist Dr. Franklin H. King of the state of Wisconsin in the United States made an extensive tour of Korea, China and Japan in 1907. During his travels, Dr. King surveyed the agricultural practices of those nations with loving attention and prepared a significant study for a western audience. Dr. King had the expertise in agricultural technologies to appreciate the careful attention to sustainability and recycling to be found in Asia. He describes the meticulous use of every available bit of land nations like Korea not as a curiosity for the Westerner, but rather as best practices to be emulated.
Tragically, Dr. King passed away the same year that the book was published under the title Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japanand found a welcome audience among those in the United States dedicated to agricultural reform. The book was published in 1911, a significant year in history. It was the end of the Qing dynasty and the agricultural system that had been the greatest achievement of that dynasty was slowly taken apart thereafter. 1911 was also the year that Japan institutionalized its colonial occupation of Korea and started to implement massive changes in Korean society that would permanently disrupt the systems for sustainable farming that Dr. King witnessed. That colonial occupation would also result in a negative evaluation of all pre-modern technologies in Korea in comparison with modern innovations from Japan that lasts to this day.
In the United States, 1911 was the height of the progressive movement, a political, educational and spiritual campaign to reform government and introduce new ideas to administration and practice. The progressive movement found much of its base in that same Wisconsin, the home of its great leader, Governor Robert M. La Follette. Governor La Follette was a major advocate of what was later called the “Wisconsin Idea,” the assumption that professors could work together with government to create a system that assured accountability and that readily employed new concepts and approaches.
1911 was a moment when some Americans had the open-mindedness to think they could learn something about agriculture from East Asia and that fundamental changes could be made in institutions in the United States. Dr. King’s approach is unique, even for that age. Dr. King observed with painstaking care the unique technologies for farming for East Asia that could be employed in the United States. Most Americans who visited Korea, Japan and China at that time saw it as their duty to introduce the advanced institutions of the west to a land they perceived as backwards and superstitious. Dr. King, by contrast, saw Asia as the repository for remarkable learning about sustainable agriculture that called out to be introduced to the West.
The book was republished in 2004 by Dover Publications under the slightly updated title Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan. It is fortunate that the publisher changed one term in the title “permanent agriculture” to “organic farming” for the new edition. Although “permanent agriculture is perhaps the more accurate term I might not have found the book in my on-line search if it had not included the word “organic.”
King was impressed by the remarkably high efficiency in farming in East Asia, particularly the manner in which even the smallest corners of land, no bigger than a kitchen table, were properly irrigated and cared for as a means to support Asia’s dense populations. He details the planting of crops with great care in small spaces, the crowding of diverse crops in one field, the techniques for growing multiple, complementary, crops in the same small fields and the careful science of conserving most all nutrients for constant reusing in farming with minimal loss of soil, water or minerals within the system. He was describing what we so need today: organic farming for high density populations. As Dr. King puts it,
“Almost every foot of land is made to contribute material for food, fuel or fabric. Everything which can be made edible serves as food for man or domestic animals. Whatever cannot be eaten or worn is used for fuel. The wastes of the body, of fuel and of fabric worn beyond other use are taken back to the field; before doing so they are housed against waste from weather, compounded with intelligence and forethought and patiently labored with through one, three or even six months, to bring them into the most efficient form to serve as manure for the soil or as feed for the crop. It seems to be a golden rule with these industrial classes, or if not golden, then an inviolable one, that whenever an extra hour or day of labor can promise even a little larger return then that shall be give, and neither a rainy day nor the hottest sunshine shall be permitted to cancel the obligation or defer its execution.” (page 13)
Dr. King details the system for the fertilization of crops that was developed over thousands of years in East Asia; a system that that achieves essentially zero waste. All waste products were fed back into the agricultural cycle with perfection in pre-modern Korea. Human and animal feces, vegetable waste, ash and other waste products were lovingly gathered, stored, processed and returned to the fields. Containers were set up throughout communities to hold these wastes in preparation for their return to the fields. Dr. King notes the terrible loss of phosphorous and other nutrients to the sea we find in the American system of waste disposal, an approach with no concern for agricultural applications of human waste.
Dr. King writes explicitly of the advantages of the Asian approach in which rather than washing out human excrement into the ocean where it is lost forever, it is almost 100% recycled to the fields:
“One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and in the production of food. To understand this evolution it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern western agriculture, like the extensive use of mineral coal, had been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years. With this fact must be associated the very long unbroken life of these nations and the vast numbers their farmers have been compelled to feed.
“When we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century’s service, and upon the enormous quality of mineral fertilizers which are being applied annually to them in order to secrete paying yields, it becomes evident that the time is here when profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land in the three southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.” (p193)
Dr. King’s book suggests that there is much in the Asian tradition of organic farming that goes far beyond anything in the West in terms of efficiency and yield. Although the book was published one hundred years ago, the wisdom unlocked in it could be used effectively to make Korea again a world leader in organic farming if only that technology was considered a priority.
Dr. King has also great praise for the large and small scale irrigation systems that efficiently collect water and make sure it is channeled back to agriculture so as to assure productivity regardless of the amount of rainfall. He attributes the closed irrigation systems, supported by convoluted lattices of canals, as essential to making sure that the nutrients in the water remain in the area and are not carried out to sea by the currents. He notes that erosion of soil can be vastly reduced through such irrigation systems.
Here he imagines what would have happened if the United States had been developed using such technologies:
“Had the Mongolian races spread to and developed in North America instead of, or as well as, in eastern Asia, there might have been a Grand Canal something as suggested in Fig. 148, from the Rio Grande to the mouth of the Ohio river and from the Mississippi to Chesapeake Bay, constituting more than two thousand miles of inland water-way, serving commerce, holding up and redistributing both the run-off water and the wasting fertility of soil erosion, spreading them over 200,000 square miles of thoroughly canalized coastal plains, so many of which are now impoverished lands, made so by the intolerable waste of a vaunted civilization.
“And who shall venture to enumerate the increase in the tonnage of sugar, bales of cotton, sacks of rice, boxes of oranges, baskets of peaches, and in the trainloads of cabbage, tomatoes and celery such husbanding would make possible through all time; or number the increased millions these could feed and clothe? We may prohibit the exportation of our phosphorus, grind our limestone, and apply them to our fields, but this alone is only temporizing with the future. The more we produce, the more numerous our millions, the faster must present practices speed the waste to the sea, from whence neither money nor prayer can call them back.
“If the United States is to endure; if we shall project our history even through four or five thousand years as the Mongolian nations have done, and if that history shall be written in continuous peace, free from periods of wide spread famine or pestilence, this nation must orient itself; it must square its practices with a conservation of resources which can make endurance possible. Intensifying cultural methods but intensifies the digestion, assimilation and exhaustion of the surface soil, from which life springs. Multiple cropping, closer stands on the ground and stronger growth, all mean the transpiration of much more water per acre through the crops, and this can only be rendered possible through a redistribution of the run-off and the adoption of irrigation practices in humid climates where water exists in abundance.
“Sooner or later we must adopt a national policy which shall more completely conserve our water resources, utilizing them not only for power and transportation, but primarily for the maintenance of soil fertility and greater crop production through supplemental irrigation, and all these great national interests should be considered collectively, broadly, and with a view to the fullest and best possible coordination. China, Korea and Japan long ago struck the keynote of permanent agriculture but the time has now come when they can and will make great improvements, and it remains for us and other nations to profit by their experience, to adopt and adapt what is good in their practice and help in a world movement for the introduction of new and improved methods.”
In an extremely rare example, Dr. King imagines what the future might look like for the United States over long periods of time, in excess of several hundred years. This point is singularly missing in almost all discussions of American agriculture today. What will become of the United States in five hundred or a thousand years if top soil continues to wash into the Gulf of Mexico?
King’s description of Asian agriculture is not limited to irrigation and fertilization. King identifies an entire world view that supports this form of agriculture, a perspective he judges to be sadly missing in the West. He sees East Asia as embodying a culture of respect for land and for materials and the resulting view of food and human life as part of an eternal process that goes on and on. That concept of agriculture as a process that continues for thousands of years and is unrelated to short term profit is refreshing, even inspiring, especially when it comes from the mouth of someone from the United States on the eve its rise to globalism.
Dr. King also praises the essentially vegetarian diet that was central in East Asia until recent years. King correctly identifies the emphasis on vegetables and grains in the Asian diet as an essential part of its sustainable economy. By eschewing the meat of animals like cows and sheep, and keeping the use of pigs and chicken to a minimum, the amount of nutrition derived from the land is much increased and waste reduced.
Shining through King’s writing is the great tradition Confucian economy in which the maintenance of agriculture was considered the primary purpose of economic activity. Although such traditional thought is generally considered to have held Asia back from progress in the 20th century, there is plenty of reason to believe that such an approach offers potential in this century. In Park Jiwon’s novel of the 18th “The Tale of Master Virtue of Filth” (혜덕선생전), for example he describes one of the individuals whose profession it was to gather “night soil” and sell it to farmers for fertilizer. The affection that Park shows for this character indicates his essential role in a healthy Confucian economy and the critical role he played in assuring that the economy was essentially “renewable.”
Dr. King describes the care given to farming in Korea is described in this manner,
“After the winter and early spring crops have been harvested the narrow ridges on which they are grown are turned into the furrows by means of their simple plow drawn by a heavy bullock different from the cattle in China but closely similar to those in Japan. The fields are then flooded until they have the appearance seen in figure 12. Over these flooded ridges the green grass and oak boughs are spread, when the fields are again plowed and the material worked into the wet soil. If this working is not completely successful men enter the fields and tramp the surface until every twig and blade is submerged. The middle section in this illustration has been fitted and transplanted; in front of it and on the left are two other fields once plowed but not fertilized; those far to the right have had the green manure applied and the ground plowed a second time, but not finished, and in the immediate foreground the grass and boughs have been scattered but the second plowing is not yet done.” (P. 369)
The entire process of assuring the fertility of the land seems akin to creating a work of art. All members of the community are drawn into the process.
Korea’s tradition of organic farming can inspire Korea today, and combined with Korea’s new strengths in technology and business can lead Korea in a new direction. First and foremost we can recreate rural Korea to be an ideal environment in which people would want to live rather than something from which they wish to escape to live in the cities. Encouraging traditional farm techniques as part of a healthier and more human life can help us returned to a more balanced Korean society.
It would be an extremely positive development if urban agriculture might be promoted throughout large cities in South Korea, including the establishment of small plots where all residents can raise small crops for themselves, whether in the gardens around housing complexes, along highways, or on the roofs of apartment buildings. In this day, urban farming is an indication of an advanced nation with deep environmental consciousness (such as Germany, Denmark, Finland or the Netherlands) and not an indication of lack of cultural sophistication. Much of Korea’s traditional wisdom can be used in this manner to make Korea the organic leader.
Moreover, parts of Korea’s tradition of organic farming would make a welcome addition to the work Korea is currently involved in regarding development globally. KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency, 국제협력단) could make good use of Korean organic farming techniques if they are properly and systematically introduced in English. Such technologies from Korea’s past are exactly what many developing countries need right now. Korea’s honored tradition of organic farming can be the centerpiece of the “Korean way of Development” that KOICA promotes abroad.
Finally, looking a bit further down, we can suggest the reintroduction of the traditions of Korean organic farming into North Korea as an means of compensating for the tremendous damage that region has suffered as a result of thoughtless mechanical farming and state planned agriculture without any consideration for ecological conditions. Korea’s past holds a treasure chest of wisdom concerning effective farming techniques that could readily be reintroduced in North Korea with a positive impact with regards to erosion and fertilizer needs.