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Seoul City Farmers aims for practical meaning

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Published : 2014-04-08 21:02
Updated : 2014-04-08 21:02

Many who grow up on farms treasure the outdoor experience, but Seoul City Farmers founder Justin Pollard’s experience of growing up on a horse farm did not fit the active, healthy stereotype.

As a 215-kilogram teenager, doctors told him he was life-threateningly overweight.

“Every single meal of my youth was purchased at a fast-food restaurant,” he said. “All of the farm work was done on machines, so I didn’t need to do manual labor of any kind, and we lived in a rural area so we drove everywhere.”

Pollard turned things around thanks to a personal interest in gardening and cooking. Now he and Hanyang University physics professor Will Nichols run Seoul City Farmers, an urban gardening group that teaches people how to grow their own greens and create food products.

But while the change Pollard made was drastic, he wants to be realistic about what people can do with their time.

“I don’t want to give people some hippy dippy idea of some tree-hugging lifestyle that they can’t really get personal meaning from,” he said. 
Justin Pollard (right) helps create a container pot for plants that is designed to reduce watering needs. (Seoul City Farmers)

This means turning away from a lot of the standard approaches to urban gardening.

“Most urban agriculture around the world is just copy and paste. They are trying to copy and paste the logic and methods of rural agriculture to an urban setting. But you really can’t do that because the context is so different,” Pollard said.

“The methods of rural agriculture require you to put a lot of labor in every single day, but when you are working a job you can’t do that. So you need to change the methodology so that there is less labor.”

There is also a lack of outdoor space. Seoul City Farmers has a 200-square-meter garden, but even this isn’t big enough for practical regular use by its members, who number almost 400.

“It’s not small, but if we had 30 people there, all of the work that we need to do in a day we could do in an hour, so there’s not really enough (space),” Pollard said.

“And that’s kind of a problem of urban farming. And that’s why I don’t want to focus on in-soil gardening.”

Pollard explained that the garden would still be used for growing and some group events but was now largely used for research and development.

Instead, Pollard has been looking at container gardening that people can do on rooftops or verandas. Although this appears straightforward, the conditions mean that container gardening can be tough.

“The smaller the soil volume, the faster it will dry, which means more labor that you will have to put in,” he said.

“And the roof’s surface gets really hot so it’s radiating the heat into the pot. And then there is wind constantly, so it is just blow-drying the soil.”

To combat this, Pollard teaches people to adopt a container system in which a base of water-holding clay covered by cloth acts as a water reservoir, with soil and mulch on top.

“It really minimizes the amount of work people put in. Because most people, if you go buy the kind of commercial pots that they have in the store, on a rooftop, those will dry, easily, in a day.”

Pollard said this had knock-on effects for plant health.

“Water-holding capacity in soil means potential for biodiversity ― a wide variety of bacteria and fungi, and they are what really unlock the soil’s nutrients so the plant can take them in,” he said, adding that dried out, barren soil can make plants more susceptible to insects and other pests.

“That’s why potting soil and even rural agriculture, their methods have to use fertilizer, because the soil is dead.”

As well as containers, Seoul City Farmers teaches urban composting, which uses worms that he said prevented bad odors. Non-farming courses include cheesemaking, beermaking and cooking.

“Of course we have to buy stuff. That’s the world we live in,” Pollard said. “But I think when that is everything, when we have no artisanal (side to our lives) and when we don’t have a craft of some kind ourselves, I think it is very easy to lose a sense of personal meaning.”

Pollard said he thought most people did not really do jobs that were connected to their sense of identity, and so they had to fulfill that side of things away from work. But he argued that most modern leisure options involved consumption, rather than anything creative.

“Those things give short-term recreational value, which is perfectly fine sometimes, but when that’s the majority of how you spend leisure time in your life, what kind of long-term value comes from that?” he said.

Pollard pointed out that when people realized what went into making something, they began to value it much more.

“They learn to appreciate what a quality object is,” he said. “When you try to make a shirt yourself and you end up with this thing that looks like this weird sack with a collar, then you look at a handmade shirt and think, ‘Wow, that is some skill. That is something that I should respect.’”

Seoul City Farmers can be found on meetup.com or Facebook.

By Paul Kerry (paulkerry@heraldcorp.com)

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