Enjoy this article that I wrote about a young Korean pear farmer in the area. It is published in the local English Language Magazine, Gwangju News (Click for the online link See Page 10 for article). Here, I have included additional photos from my visit the orchard where I was able to interview “Sun” and meet some of his family. Naju is a town in Korea, famous for the classic varieties of Asian Pears grown there.
*Full disclosure, I have enjoyed some free samples that were given to me.
The New Korean Wave at Sun’s Farm
Words and photos by Peter Gallo
The interview at Sun’s Farm is an event. Soyeon, my wife and driver, and I have travelled the hour by car to Naju to see the show , and after taking care of some personal business at the “DMV”, Sun (by Kakao text) suggests that we have lunch at a super popular Gomtang restaurant in Naju-si. Afterward, we drive out to the orchard, which is about 15 minutes from town. We are safely guided into the neighborhood by GPS, but must be rerouted, and personally escorted through the gates, with farmer Lim Sun Kook sitting in the back seat.
Lim, of Sun’s Farm is a third generation Naju Pear farmer, but you won’t hear him bragging about this like in some of the expensive internet ads. The launch of www.sunsfarm.kr represents a new phase in the efforts of the farmer-turned-entrepreneur. It is a basic commercial site, selling pears directly to Korean consumers, with no English or overseas shipping option. It lacks the presence of any social media links or Internet ads.
Lim prefers to promote his website in person at events such as a seasonal holiday shopping market here in Gwangju. The Christ Market is hosted by the vegetarian buffet restaurant in downtown Gwangju, near Art Street, and runs on Saturday evenings through December. Among the locally-made handcrafts, home baked goods, and food trucks, Lim is just another local vendor, selling small jars of honey and foil pouches which contain the sweet pear juice from his family’s Naju orchard. Keeping in the holiday spirit, some juice packets are even spiked with doraji, the medicinal root of the bellflower.
When in Gwangju, Lim stays with his wife, Erin O’Reily-Lim, who lives and works in the city as an ESL teacher at a local school. On weekends like this, the family can all be together, including their daughter, Minah, and Noah, born September 28, 2016. Minah’s image is intimately linked to the Sun’s Farm brand, being at the center of the banner heading at the top of the website. In the Sun’s Farm logo, she is holding a golden pear the size of the sun.
Along the driveway, we are welcomed by the naked orchard trees, which to the western eye somewhat resemble trellised grape vineyards. The branches, vastly supported with a matrix of cables and posts are, Sun explains, expertly shaped for easy access and maximum production of the fruit.
Minah, appears and starts to show off, chatting in a singsong voice, speaking a mixture of Korean, English, and her own made-up language. She climbs ladders, tractors and bravely chases a flock of domesticated geese and chickens, who scatter. During summer, this must be a lush green forest. In the autumn, green pears turn gold, and are individually wrapped in special polyester gloves to protect them. Now all the pears have been put up into cold storage, and only lonely fallen leaves blow in a chilly wind.
Lim tells me that the orchard is 10,000 pyeong, 만 평 (about 8 U.S. acres), one of the larger- sized pear orchard operations in Naju. I am taken to the main house, while, Soyeon, exhausted from her Korean driving test, elects to return to her car for a nap.
We approach the main house, and after awkwardly greeting Lim’s Father in my broken Korean, I join Sun and Minah, inside, where We sit on the floor by the front door and get down to the business of the interview. Erin is working in the city, so Grandma and Grandpa Lim play with the kids. Two-month-old, Noah is comforted by Grandpa, clearly smitten with another male heir to the Pear Farm throne. I record the interview on my phone, and Sun shares his dreams of taking over the family farm when his parents retire.
We communicate in English quite well, but most of the dialogue is too direct for print. He explains that he doesn’t include any social media type content on the website, because it is strictly there to sell pears and other Sun’s Farm products. He has had some difficulties getting permission from his father, taking about ten years to convince him to allow him to launch the website. He shares his dreams of taking over the family farm when his parents retire. He would like to see Naju pears be as popular as oranges and apples some day.
“I am 35 years old, (which is) pretty young for farming.” Lim admits that he does know of one other younger pear farmer who started studying at a trade high school, but Lim’s experience comes purely from working at the orchard with his family. Being so young, he doesn’t get a lot of respect from the older farmers, yet. The vast majority are male, of his father’s generation, which is nearly retirement age.
If the website is conservative in nature, then Lim’s personal style is fashionable attire, like basketball jerseys and hightop sneakers, that he models on his Instagram site. He has even posed with a couple of large Naju pears atop a duel-mixing turntable. Maybe this is where the completely untrue rumors that Sun is a part-time Hip Hop DJ come from.
Lim confesses that he does fantasize about developing a small line of hats and shirts to promote the Sun’s Farm Brand that might appeal to Korean “rock-star farmers”, if they exist. Lim would also like to develop other products derived from the pears, such as hard cider. A previous effort by Naju Pear farmers was not successful, but Lim feels that modern pub drinkers would demand such a product if it existed.
Minah has been watching cartoons with the volume turned up loud, but just then the news comes on and reminds us that it is a historical moment for South Korea. They are about to impeach their first female president. I give Sun a chance to talk about the political drama, but he declines to comment, half-joking that he doesn’t want to get in trouble”.Outside again, the light is winter bright.
There are rows of radishes on the front stoop waiting to be made into kimchi. Sun carries the baby while Minah races the length of The warehouse is connected to the main house. It contains the entire operation, excluding the juice manufacturing, which is contracted out to a reliable off-site factory. Boxes, which will be packed with 7.5 kg of pears, are stacked on pallets along the warehouse wall wait to be unwrapped and assembled. Minah is a willing worker, and gets busy. The boxes will be packed with 7.5 kg of pears. Customers have a few different impressively-large sized varieties to choose from. According to Lim, these boxes are likely be given as holiday gifts, and eventually, the pears will be placed on altars all over South Korea, or eaten. The weeks before holidays, such as Seollal and Chuseok, are the busiest times for the farm, but they don’t hire out labor for packing. Only during the pruning seasons do they need about 10 additional people to help. Since there is a lack of Korean farm labor available, Sun’s Farm is forced to hire immigrant farm workers, who can be found through day-labor centers. English and Korean are the main languages used to communicate, but the workers mostly come from Russia and Vietnam, so this can be logistically challenging.
Now to see the world’s tallest refrigerator. I’m exaggerating, but When Sun slides open the door to the “walk in” refrigerator, the towers of pear-filled crate stacks reach the ceiling of the warehouse. He grabs a couple of sample souvenir pears for me, and slams the door shut. The pears ripen slowly, and at that temperature they’ll be perfect by late January, when the next big rush of orders comes in. One challenge, according to Lim, is that because the holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the market season is different every year.
Earlier in the interview, Lim stresses the importance of selling directly to consumers through the website, cutting out the middle man, and giving more profit to the family farm. The conventional Naju Pear market is run by an auction system, that sells mostly to department stores at twice the cost of what he can sell on his website.
“You can buy Naju pears in the supermarket” Lim assures me, but since the pears that come from Sun’s Farm are rated among the highest quality in the nation, they are usually only sold at department stores.