The Kong Project: A Yearlong Journey from Seed to Sauce
Farming is no laughing matter. But it was the subject of a long-running joke between my fiance and I that would begin a year-long experience taking soybeans from seed to sauce using only traditional methods. As a way to ingratiate myself to her parents who are career farmers, I’d often kid about doing something to confound their expectations of me, a foreign English teacher. I’d pitch a goat farm to her father so as to exploit the unknown, gaping hole in Korea’s goat cheese market or learn from her mom how to make meju, the building block of soy sauce and doenjang, Korean fermented bean paste.
One day, on my regular lengthy subway commute, Facebook, as is its wont, dropped an unexpected opportunity into my lap. Gachi CSA, an organic food organization, had one spot open for its “Kong Project”, a project committed to taking the humble soybean (or kong in Korean) from its nascent seed form all the way to pungent, addictive doenjang and its by-product: soy sauce. I asked my fiance for her approval to sign up. I asked her if it would win her parents’ favor. Her answer was an unequivocal “yes.” She also insinuated that I’d been all talk and no action about doing something traditionally Korean and agricultural for too long. It was enough to get me to wire the participation fee immediately.
What had I just done? A year of waking up at 6am on the weekends to go out to Namyangju, an organic farming hub just east of Seoul and a 90 minute train journey from my apartment. What would happen to my beloved Saturday nights?
My only previous farming experience was in elementary school working in my uncle’s chicken coops. It was a short-lived endeavor that promptly ended as soon as I picked up a dead chicken which then posthumously urinated on my hand. In horror, I retreated to the truck and ate cold pizza. Would I do the adult equivalent this time around?
My first farming date was set for the final day of May. I arrived at 8:30am at Ungilsan Station, Namyangju. Unsure of how a farmer should dress, I wore hiking pants, a pair of grungy New Balance sneakers, and a light grey exercising shirt which would quickly darken from sweat and soil.
Another question on my mind surrounded the cast of characters with whom I would be undertaking such a long project. What happens if they flake out? Would that be more work for the rest of us? Will we all get along or will things devolve into a Lord of the Flies-like struggle to survive?
On the first balmy morning my fears were quelled. Everyone was smiling and more than pleasant despite the heat and early hour.
The group was heavily composed of long-term foreign residents (folks who had been here four years or more) all of whom had a similar objective to mine: looking to connect to our adopted culture and home. There was a young Korean couple who were advertising agents by day. There were two families with squealing, excited children who rolled around in the mud and offered moments of levity. The indispensable Byung-soo Kim, owner of our location, Hansol Farm, and a few Gachi employees were there to lead us.
The first day was every bit as backbreaking as I had fretted. Armed with only spades and gloves, we slashed at weeds and needly vines. The earth was dry and rocky, each puncture of the soil turned up dust and detritus as insects scurried away from their previously safe haven. Mercifully for my crouching knees and blistering hands, we took a long, rejuvenating lunch break for farm-fresh salad, bread, and pasta. The highlight of the meal was pulled chicken made from two year old rooster that was slow-cooked overnight before our arrival.
Reborn, we entered the second part of our farming day: getting the seedlings into the ground. Byung-soo, perhaps having pity for our amateur farming status, got the plants started for us a couple of weeks prior and so we had perky, green seedlings to bed into the soil. We worked in long rows, one person ahead of the other: the front person preparing a small hole and the following person lovingly tucking the seedlings into their bed. Our cooperation would bode well for the future of the project.
At the end of the day, I returned home bruised, blistered, and somewhat broken. The bemused and boisterous hikers returning to Seoul no doubt thinking I had also been scaling a mountain. Little did they know my journey had just begun.
Jordan Redmond will be sharing more experiences with The Kong Project in coming issues.