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Farming Salt in Docho
Profile of one family’s business on Korea’s west coast
©Text-Colin Moore/Photography-Nayan Sthankiya
Just off the boat, I approach the only taxi waiting. Reputation has it they’re a rarity so I’m determined to get it first. The driver isn’t biting, a rejection I’ll fully blame on the agility of my tongue. Welcome to Docho, a four-sided island off Korea’s southwestern tip. Mention the name anywhere north of Gwangju though and heads will be scratched, guaranteed. No problem. From Seoul, drop straight down to Mokpo, then turn right.
The locals are helpful and I soon find myself stuffed in a cab with a Korean family. They’re passively jammed in the back. What is it about the rural mentality that embarrasses you for thinking things should be anything but simple? You need a lift. Here’s an empty seat. What’s the problem? The driver is wearing a full athletics suit for the occasion. Hummels. There’s even a matching hat, and for better or worse, matching speed. The family is dropped off in seconds and we continue, racing between rice fields on a two-way street that could easily be one and a third. Considering the amount of available space here, no one is shy about making the road his or her front porch. Small one-story enclaves hug the roads in small groups, giving the countryside all the breathing room it needs.
We reach the home of Jeon Gum-ok, a one level white bungalow visible through a familiar Korean-style metal gate. Modest accommodations for a modest town. We’re not quite at the sliding glass door but it’s obvious to the three figures sitting inside that they have company. The elder is up first. He has that country intensity, a combination of confidence and aggression that dares you to measure up. I would stop staring if I could. Under an untucked work-shirt, Gum-ok wears the caramel tan of a lifetime. It’s the kind you can only earn by natural means, and he has, just not the way you might think.
Picture a wet chessboard. Wooden slats frame out a series of troughs and narrow walkways that divide the squares in between. Each block is a separate lot, or pan, measuring some 50 feet by 25 feet. The depth of the seawater inside is shallow, barely measurable in inches. Sea salt farming is about surface area and exposure to solar energy though, not water volume. Posting a lifeguard here would be a waste of everyone’s time. In terms of scale, a single salt farm can be as wide as its owner’s pocketbook, but the process itself happens in narrow strips of 7 to 10 pans that begin at the water source. In this case, it’s the West Korean Sea. Among other places, it runs between the islands of Bigum and Docho before winding inland in a series of tributaries that feed the salt farms. Gum-ok tends four of these strips. No longer working the pans, these days he manages the day-to-day activities of the farm.
Considering the supposed amount of time since we called the sea home, it’s impressive to watch anything materialize out of the ocean this quickly. When it reaches the final lot it will have reached up to 30 percent salinity. The Dead Sea measures as much on a normal day, but without life. At a high enough salinity all but the most basic life forms cease to exist; algae and shrimp, fish and water plants become history. In certain salt ponds though, the mix of certain microorganisms and salinity can produce startling Crayola hues of red, pink and shrimp-induced orange. There are a variety of creatures in and around Gum-ok’s farm. Looking into the water surrounding his lots, one can see scouring crabs along with fish and snails.
In cooperative weather, salt farming is a 6- to 10-day evolution. It takes that long for evaporation naturally to crystallize salt out of the brine, or seawater. Thank Mother Nature. In this world she’s like the landlord who peddles free utilities, though occasionally she’s moody enough to flip off the switch. On the threat of rain, the farmers transfer the lots of partially evaporated seawater into storage basins. These are primitive foxholes set in the earth, protected by the relatively cleaner water above by A-frame aluminum roofs. From the edge of the road they resemble tin shacks buried up to their eaves, the former abodes of farmers who met a sinkhole. They come in pairs and sit close to the center of a four-strip plot. They won’t need them today, thankfully.
Choi Sun-ho and Ko Young-sun can tell as much. As a husband and wife team they’ve invested the last 10 years of their lives into this game. They know a month from now the weather might be too cool to be effective. It can be beaten though. In vacuum evaporation farming, holes are drilled hundreds of feet underground to rock salt deposits created from the evaporated remains of ancient salt lakes. The salt bed is then dissolved in a water solution and pumped to the surface, where it is resurrected in a series of heated vacuum pans. Sounds well enough on paper, but it’s a commercial method with an outlay three modest islanders can hardly afford. Fortunately the Sun is free. Sodium chloride begins to crystallize when its concentration in the brine approaches 26 percent. As the days pass, they move the mixture down the line, lot to lot, until it reaches the final three. Ignore the sporting description. The rubberized lots at the end just happens to be where they’re working today, and under a blue sky all the financial planners in Seoul would have a tough time duplicating.
Sun-ho moves a homemade squeegee across the rubber’s smooth surface, pushing the salt into rows of cones at the edge. The job is a physically demanding one made more so as the late afternoon sun beats down. Young-sun does her best to keep up with her husband, pushing together neatly packed mountains of sea salt. It’s a familiar looking shape for a familiar substance, but in proportions that would decimate a blood pressure cuff. The backlit green hills behind them are just as pointed. Suddenly the whole world is a primary shape. But this is what they wait for. The salt is loaded into wheelbarrows and brought to a cabin at the edge of the farm where it’s bagged (higher tech farms have mini rail-car systems). Days of care and observation end in another full day’s work, and a certain satisfaction. Water in, water out, keep whatever’s left. This is the process. A quick run around the island proves as much. The farms here follow a primitive blueprint that repeats itself wherever there’s space and a waterway to allow it. When all is said and done, a farm is a farm is a farm. A farmer though …
By all appearances, Jeon Seong-jae is a true to life Seoulite. He works and breathes in a greater metropolitan area only surpassed by Tokyo in population. He has all the accoutrements of life in the capital: apartment, vehicle, wife and kids, but doesn’t recall them in that order. And he seems comfortable enough with a sugar-laced iced tea in his hand. Seong-jae gives something away in his body language though. It ramps up when he begins explaining the salt farm in Docho where he grew up, the process, the motion of the water, and his father, Jeon Gum-ok. He speaks through a translator. “There were five children in his family and he was the second son. When my grandfather died, my father stayed there voluntarily to earn money. He only graduated from elementary school but his older brother was going to university, so he stayed to work for the family. They respected him a lot.” That was in 1948. Since then, he’s been at it steadily.
Most of the people who know salt farming in Docho know Gum-ok. After 50 years in the business he’s reclaimed enough salt from Korean waters to prove that he has nothing else to prove. In the early days, teams of three to four people would man a farm. Each member would each get his or her share, paid in salt, with the leader getting something more for his effort. It harkens to the days of ancient Rome, when workers were often paid in salt for their work, salarium, the basis of today’s salary. Gum-ok consistently filled the role of team leader, but it had nothing to do with seniority, the system of precedence that still vetoes individual experience in the Korean workplace. On the farm, it was as simple as being able to produce. Seong-jae tells a story that he seems proud to recall. “Once my father and a friend bought half a tract of land to farm salt on. The man who sold it to them continued farming the other half. They worked the land and made almost as much with their part as the owner had with the whole area. The original owner insisted on trading plots. He thought his land that was the problem, not him. My father agreed but only if the owner agreed to give him a piece of his land if he was beaten again. He thought about it, then said no.”
Main Street Docho doesn’t really exist. When a ferry arrives it scrapes its metal yaw on the edge of the terminal parking lot and all at once you’re downtown. Passengers and cars exit up a natural gangway to the white mini-mall of restaurants behind it. They’re mostly Korean and mostly offering salt-drenched sea diets, no big surprise. Behind it all is just enough of a town to keep things running. Barber shop. Corner store. A bare bones pharmacy. It’s no Seoul, or even Mokpo for that matter. There’s not a PC gaming room or white-gloved traffic guard, in fact there’s no traffic, and without a grinder of your own you’ll have to live without your favorite two-tailed American mermaid: Starbucks is a whispered fantasy brought by city folk.
But there are salt farms, and by reputation they are some of the country’s best. Seong-jae explains part of the reason for their success. “The area’s water is clean. A lot of the things that can add to the salt’s impurities are protected by the farms’ location.” The tone of his voice is proud, but matter of fact. The purity of the area is nothing new, nothing that’ll be changed short of making Docho KoreaDisney or striking oil. When he speaks of the people involved though, it’s clear where he wants the real credit to go. “When my father was working, he worked really hard. He has skills. He knows what he’s doing. He’s the one who asked about the Web site. He said to me, ‘You went to university. You know about these things.'” When he explains it, he still seems surprised by the idea. It’s not every day an aging agrarian sheds the stereotype of the tech-ignorant senior.
“We have A-grade and B-grade salt. The quality of the salt can depend on the weather. During the off season, in colder weather, the quality will be lower and the size will be smaller, and more bitter.” This is what he refers to as B-grade. “The bigger the size, the less salty it is. This is what we sell to NongHyup.” NongHyup is Korea’s national agricultural cooperative, a protectorate of farmers and farming production in the marketplace. Among other things, it supports domestic agriculture by mass-producing quality food products. As such, it’s the buyer of much of Jeon’s A-grade salt. Both types are available for purchase on their Web site. For now it seems to be helping, a way to keep their heads above water. At least human body chemistry won’t be changing any time soon. It guarantees salt will always have a place in the world.
Chloride maintains acid-base balance and plays a leading role in digestion. Sodium, on the other hand, regulates nerve and muscle function, blood volume and electrolyte balance, and in six-week-old calves may reduce cases of self-grooming (tell a metrosexual near you). Its use as a seasoning and food preservative goes back beyond recorded history. As a means of controlling fermentation, no self-respecting bread baker would be without it. But its impact clearly goes beyond the tongue. Wars have been fought for it and slaves bought with it (hence the expression “not worth his weight in salt”), adventurers have chewed themselves around the world because of it, and at least one disciple in a well-known Da Vinci work is shown tainting his luck by spilling it. Wouldn’t be a last supper without condiments.
The sea salt farming season in Korea runs from June to September. The rest of the time is spent maintaining the farm for the next year. It’s a living that the younger Jeon is fully willing to say bears risk. “Before, there were many agents. They really liked the quality of the salt so my father could pick the price. Now it’s different.” More than a few Korean fingers point west, then stop at China. In 2006, it became the world’s largest producer of salt ahead of the United States, Germany and India. It’s not the first time the production powerhouse has impacted foreign industry with cheap exports. “China salt is cheaper. Seven or eight years ago, the price was about 12,000 won for a 30-kilogram bag. Now it’s 4,000.”
But Jeon is also open to admitting more domestic responsibility. “Sea salt couldn’t be used in Korean restaurants for the last 10 years. The government considered it a health risk. It wasn’t pure enough.” Although far be it for policy makers to stake out the tens of thousands of family-run eateries. Many Korean grill houses spread sea salt on their meat for a more natural flavoring. Other restaurants use it to preserve and flavor indigenous foodstuffs like kimchi, then replace it with table salt before handing it over to customers. It’s the difference between book law and the law of the streets, though as of late 2006 steps were being taken to register sea salt as a servable food. The jury’s still out. Seong-jae speaks with his hands, but you can’t blame him for using fluid gesturing. It’s a livelihood that depends on the sea after all. “In France, there’s a different way of thinking, that sea salt is better than the pure table salt. Net prices there can be up to 80,000 won for a kilogram, so Korean farmers are starting to rethink its potential” (online samples of hand-harvested Fleur de Sel sell for $30 to $90 per kilogram). Certain advocates of customer well-being continue to be skeptical.
Call it the case of the unknown percentage. Sea salt is 80 percent to 84 percent sodium chloride. It’s the other 16 percent to 20 percent that worries Korean health authorities, leading to a ban on the salt within the last decade. It’s an ironic reversal of fortunes depending on who you talk to, the “natural” being trumped by the chemically and industrially refined. But what of it then? What you see on the kitchen table as table salt is 99 percent pure, a winning advert in the right hands, but advocates of sea salt have something to add — refined is no prize.
Common table salt may have claims to higher measures of thyroid-friendly iodine, but there are enough sources that claim it’s the unrefined, untreated ingredients in ocean salt, rich in minerals and sea nutrients, that our bodies require more. After rock salt is mined, it undergoes a process to remove impurities and improve storage ability. It’s bleached, diluted, chemically treated and given anti-caking agents to make sure the grains slide properly through the shaker hole. No one likes a clog. The problem comes when these treatments invite the beneficial elements to tag along for the ride, stripping out essential macronutrients and trace elements that our bodies require. The final result is mere sodium chloride. Give it a moment’s thought though. From a Dirty Dozen-like perspective, even the path to nonrefinement has a certain nobility to it, sacrificing the good to stem the tide of evil, taking one for the team, breaking eggs, making omelets, that kind of thing. The effect can just as easily be seen another way: pyrrhic.
Watching Seong-jae, you can’t help but smile to yourself. For a son who’s left home for one of Asia’s biggest and busiest cities, he has nothing but fondness for the old days. “I remember it more as a playground, not as a hard working area. In the last year of high school, I had to prepare for university, but before that I mostly helped my father. All the family did.” It almost rang a bell. To a Western-raised city brat whose family responsibilities peaked at snow shoveling, the next question was automatic: how did you maintain a social life? “I would have appointments with friends, but I also had to help on the farm. Sometimes my dad would ask me to be there and other times my friends came with me and helped out.” From what one can gather, he’s put in his time.
Seoul is Seong-jae’s home now. There’s barely a pause when asked if he’d ever consider going back to the farm. He knows what being an independent sea salt farmer means today, after a decade of cheap imports and less than healthy PR. That aside, he’s comfortable playing the urban immigrant. “My wife is from Seoul. Besides that, I don’t want to leave the lifestyle and the culture. Moving would change everything.” As a father himself now, he’s undoubtedly taken a piece of life experience from a certain steel-willed family member. Take care of your family.