Husband and wife share mixed emotions about scenic farm they built from scratch

Story by Kang Hyung-kyung / Photos by Shim Hyun-chul

Older couple's orchard becomes one of Korea's best plum blossom attractions, but plunging price of fruit casts dark clouds over farm.

ASAN, South Chungcheong Province Using her teeth, Kim Gui-yim, 68, bites into a fresh green plum that she picked from a tree in her orchard. Grimacing at its sour, pungent taste, she places in her palm the seed from inside the fruit, which had broken into pieces, as a way to teach the reporter about the right timing for picking the fruit.

"It's not good enough to harvest yet. As you can see here, the seed is not hard enough,"she said. "When the seed becomes as hard as a rock, so that it becomes unbreakable with our teeth, then it's time to harvest. This is how we, as farmers, figure out when to pick the fruit."

She and her husband, Jung Tae-jin, are set to harvest their first batch this year of plums, called "maesil" in Korean, on June 6 in their 660,000-square-meter farm nestled in the foothills of a mountain overseeing the scenic Naengjeong Reservoir in Asan City, South Chungcheong Province. They originally named the farm, "Jung-mae-won" (meaning Jung's maesil farm), after the husband's surname, to honor the new business.

Whenever they gaze at the scenic farm from atop the mountain, the grey-haired couple experiences a surge of mixed emotions.

They are proud, because two decades of tireless work have eventually transformed the foothills into a breathtaking sea of plum blossoms that draw huge crowds of tourists each spring.

But at the same time, deep down in their hearts, there's also a sense of regret. Thanks to their hard work and investments, the maesil farm now has around 8,000 trees that produce two tons of fruit each year. Nevertheless, the couple says they are also stuck in a vicious cycle of endless farm work and poor revenue.

Farmer couple Kim Gui-yim (left) and Jung Tae-jin walk along a path between maesil trees on their farm.

The couple sold its first batch of maesil in the market about a decade ago when prices had already sharply fallen. Since the health benefits of the fruit became known to the public in the early 2000s, demand was soaring. Maesil started being sold at competitive market prices, which prompted other farmers to jump on the bandwagon. Farmers all over the country rushed to plant maesil trees, hoping to earn lots of money. But four to five years later, there was a maesil glut and prices plummeted.

Asked if they ever considered earning extra income, for example, by charging entrance fees to visitors to their orchard during the springtime, or by opening a cafe, the couple shook their heads.

"We're happy to meet people who like our farm. We've never thought of charging an entrance fee, because their encouragement makes us feel proud of what we've done so far," said Kim

Life on the farm gets very busy during plum-picking season in June and July.

"Once the fruit picking begins, my wife skips lunch almost every day because there are so many things to take care of," Jung said.
"We already have hundreds of pre-orders from our customers either through direct phone calls or messages sent through our website, which is managed by our daughter living in Seoul. So once maesil picking begins on June 6, we send them fresh maesil based on a first-come, first-served basis."

Before settling in the city of Asan, in the center region of Korea's western coast, Jung, 73, was a self-employed contractor responsible for building houses in Ansan City, Gyeonggi Province. Owning a small company, he recalled that every day was stressful and exhausting, mainly because of money.

"Like other business, building houses is about money and relationships with other people," Jung said.
"Once you sign a contract with your client and build a house, you need a lot of money to buy materials, pay construction workers, and other expenditures. Money from your clients doesn't always arrive one time. My cash reserve dried up, but I still had to invest in new housing projects. So most of the stress that I endured during all those years was due to money and relationships with my business partners and clients…"

As those stressful days went on, Jung began to think of his life after retirement. He had a long talk with his wife about their future and they agreed to grow maesil trees in a less-populated rural city. The city of Asan emerged as a top candidate, because the couple owned land there, which Jung had inherited from his ancestors.

When they discussed what kinds of crops they were to grow for a living, maesil popped into their minds because the couple shared a fond memory of the fruit.

Their daughter suffered from chronic diarrhea when she was little. Kim took her daughter to the hospital many times, but medicine didn't help ease the symptoms. The doctor said her daughter's ailment stemmed from a weak large intestine.

After hearing from someone that maesil is effective in curing gastrointestinal ailments, Kim made puree using the fruit and fed it to her daughter. The homemade puree worked.

It was three decades ago when Kim and her husband experienced in person the benefits of maesil. But it wasn't easy to find the fruit in stores back then. Because of its strong, sour taste, maesil was not popular. However, the fruit was used as an ingredient in traditional herbal medicine. Kim went to Seoul's Gyeongdong Market, which is a haven for herbal ingredients used in traditional medicine, to obtain maesil for her daughter.

The "mysterious healing power" of maesil that the couple experienced some three decades ago popped up in their minds when they were struggling to decide what to do with the rest of their lives.

After relocating to Asan City, the couple started over from scratch. Kim's husband bought maesil seedlings in the town market and planted them along the foothills of their land. It took almost four years for the couple to eventually fill the 660,000-square-meter farm with some 8,000 maesil trees.

And they continue to toil in the farm.

"I thought I could find time to relax once tree planting was done. I was wrong. It turns out that the work is endless, even after the trees are planted. Once the super-busy plum-picking season is over, then we need to prune the trees. Nurturing the top soil, fertilizing… the labor is never-ending. Once one task is done, then the next one pops up. This cycle is repeated all year round," said Jung.
"Working all day long at the farm was okay when I was relatively young. But now, as I grow older, I find myself getting exhausted easily and it has become increasingly tough to do the same work every day."

Asked if he has any other dreams that he wants to achieve, he said he only wants to take care of the farm for the rest of his life.