A handful of plants struggle to grow in a tiny garden in the backyard of a caf. Urban farmer Park Jeong-ja gazes in awe.
The withered branches in crumbly soil are staging a spectacular battle to survive the long winter, urban pollution and dry weather.
“In plants like this, we see a struggle for life. People rarely catch the changes in plant life, but some actively try to find them out,” the 49-year-old woman said.
To many like Park, farm work is not only about growing food but also offers escape from hectic urban lives and sometimes a cure for stress-induced illnesses.
“Urban farmers look at how plants grow in spite of the difficulties. Identification with them helps overcome the frustrations in life,” said Moon Ji-hye, a researcher of urban agriculture at the Rural Development Administration.
In addition to psychological comfort and increased physical activity, urban farming can also provide a sense of community by inducing more exchanges with neighbors.
“Most apartment residents don’t even say hello to one another. But when they go out in a field, they tend to talk more. About seeds, garbage disposal and the like,” she said.
Park, a farming mentor, said working on fields helps people who are emotionally barren. She has helped run school garden programs for five years.
“There are some kids who don’t even know what they’re feeling,” Park said. “It’s a little sad that we have to rely on agriculture to restore emotions, but it can be a catalyst.”
According to Moon, the impact of agriculture on people’s minds can be bigger in the earlier stages of life. The school farm project, led by Moon, invites elementary schools to use farming in their curriculum.
“From a very early age, students are forced to go through competition,” Moon said.
“But farming is about cooperation and effort. It conveys a message that working together can bring better results. And also it encourages students to take responsibility because a lack of caring causes the death of the plants.”
Contact with the greenery can also enrich the lives of citizens.
“The natural environment reduces stress that is surging in modern society. This means the importance of plants grows as urbanization picks up speed,” said Kwak Keum-joo, a professor of psychology at Seoul National University.
“A green environment helps people recover from stress and reduces aggression in a hyper-competitive society.”
Another study by University of Illinois researchers showed that children who grow up in low vegetative areas had a significantly lower level of everyday activity and creative play compare to those who were raised in an environment with more trees and grass.
“Children growing up in the inner city are at risk for a range of negative developmental outcomes,” the study, titled “Growing up in the inner city,” said.
An important draw of urban farming is the safe and healthy food it offers. A series of bad food scandals has increased interest in locally produced food and motivated more people to cultivate their own crops.
With experts touting the positive effects of urban farming, the looming task for its proponents is to make sure it is not merely a passing trend.
A teacher at a Seoul-based elementary school said a company sponsored his school’s farming project in order to conduct an experiment on the effects of green life. The sponsors, however, stopped funding the farm after they got their results, leaving the school running the program alone.
“My hope is that urban farming will not become another one of those instant fads,” said Park. “There is no telling how long we can keep farming at our current location. The consistent support and related policies are what we most need.”
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com)