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Farmers’ guild seek to boost ...bokbunja food, beverages exports

Farmers in North Jeolla Province are stepping up efforts to spur exports of food and beverages made with “bokbunja,” a wild blackberry indigenous to the region, to carve out a niche market and foster the local economy.

The Jebba Food & Beverages Corp. was launched in early 2011 to spearhead their campaign, representing bokbunja growers in Gochang, Sunchang and Jeongeup in the country’s southwest.

The wild fruit has been a major part of the region’s agriculture since its residents first started cultivating bokbunja in the late 1980s. The three neighboring counties now take up around 84 percent of the country’s output.

“As our business is in the fledgling stage, we’ll have to invest a tremendous amount of time and effort to systemize production systems, perform professional marketing and thus notch up our competitiveness,” said Jebba chief Lee Kyung-soo.

With bokbunja building a reputation for its potential health and beauty effects, the provincial government has been striving to establish farming as a lucrative sector and bring agriculture cash to the local economy. 
Lee Kyung-soo (third from left), president of Jebba Food & Beverages Corp., an association of bokbunja producers in North Jeolla Province, introduces the traditional wine to foreign diplomats at an event in Seoul in December. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Lee Kyung-soo (third from left), president of Jebba Food & Beverages Corp., an association of bokbunja producers in North Jeolla Province, introduces the traditional wine to foreign diplomats at an event in Seoul in December. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Municipalities are gearing up to create a food cluster to bolster exports and tourism. Bokbunja producers are diversifying their product lineups into wines, beverages, teas, snacks, noodles, cosmetics and medicine through joint research with universities and regional think tanks, Lee says.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry also promised to funnel 5.9 billion won ($5.2 million) by 2013 into marketing, research and development and facility expansion.

“North Jeolla is the region of taste, with lots of popular specialties like chili pepper paste, cheese and bibimbap,” a ministry official said. Bibimbap is a Korean dish of rice mixed with sauted and seasoned vegetables.

“The project will help the cluster scale up exports targeting Northeast Asia by working with adjacent agricultural production complexes and ports.”

The market for bokbunja-based food and drinks has expanded nearly fivefold over the past seven years to around 200 billion won in 2011, Jebba estimates.

The robust growth, however, has recently slowed down in the wake of oversupplies, output losses due to unusual weather, and a spike in the consumption of makgeolli, a Korean rice wine.

To tackle these challenges, the association teamed up with leading local breweries and distilleries such as Kooksoondang and Baesangmyun to manufacture bokbunja-based products. It also outlined a farming manual for all its members to raise the consistency and quality of their crops.

In November, Jebba won orders from two Japanese retailers ― Ecofood System and Andamul ― to supply bokbunja products worth $500,000 each year.

Ecofood distributes alcoholic drinks and food materials to some 3,000 restaurants and bars in Japan. Andamul operates an online shopping mall where Japanese customers can buy Korean goods.

“The deals will give fresh momentum the struggling domestic bokbunja industry,” Lee said at a promotional event in December in Seoul.

“We’ll develop more products that can create a synergy with the Korean Wave to accelerate the expansion of the market.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)
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