Salt existed before mankind. Indeed, animals noticed the true value of salt before any humans became aware of it. All animals naturally eat salt based on their natural appetite.
Humans observed animals’ behavior and slowly followed their lead. Salt was very difficult to find back when humans carried no tools; people had to find tiny specks of saline crust on shore rocks and from tidal pools that had dried up.
It finally became easily attainable when humans started to use tools to obtain salt from ocean water. Necessary for survival, mankind started to find ways to create salt, and this was how salt farms began.
Before Koreans began “farming” salt, they extracted their salt by boiling sea water. The practice known as “ja-yeom” continued during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). But soon after that, such techniques became forgotten and a new method known today as “salt farming” started to develop around 1907.
The history of salt farming is thought to have started in the oldest salt community in Korea located at Juan in Incheon. It soon spread to coastal communities in Gyeonggi Bay, Seosan, Buan, Yeonggwang and Sinan. These places also have the best mudflats in the country.
The production of sea salt requires a combination of several techniques, which comes from the indigenous knowledge of the people. Due to the many techniques and confusion stemming from diversity, the salt industry was never as big as agriculture in Korea.
Nevertheless sea salt makers created and passed down their own salt culture. Culture came from rituals, traditions and beliefs that accompanied the salt production and harvest ― farmers held shamanistic rituals called “gosa” to wish for a rich-harvest and made “nodongyo (labor song),” distinctive songs to accompany salt production while working on their salt beds.
Korean salt farms consist of five parts ― a reservoir, evaporating pond, crystallizing pond, haeju and a salt warehouse. When the tide rises in the sea, the sluice gates of the reservoir are opened. Once the water flows into the reservoir, the salt farmer lets the sea water flow into different checkered fields for natural evaporation. Only performed in fair weather, the process increases the salinity of the water; from 2-3 parts per thousand to 17-25 ppt. When the weather is bad, the salt farmer lets the water sit in a brine warehouse called haeju. Salt usually crystallizes after two to three days. It takes 25 days to turn sea water into salt.
There are other countries that make sea salt, including France, Vietnam, China, Portugal and Mexico, and 250 million tons of salt are produced worldwide every year. Sea salt accounts for 700,000 tons while salt made from salt farms created on tidal flats total 400,000 tons.
Salt farms are valuable as a natural resource with comparative advantages. Salt farms in Korea are constructed on tidal flats. The Korean government designated the area for preservation under the wetland conservation law which soon followed the area’s designation by Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Tidal flats contain significant ecological treasures of great biodiversity. Tidal flats rejuvenate surrounding ecosystems, releasing vegetative matter into rivers in the area helps feed aquatic organisms in the waters as well as providing homes for migratory birds.
Now, salt farms are included on the cultural properties list in Korea and have become an important cultural heritage.
Salterns mark the borders between tidal flats and human habitats. They straddle the line between nature and culture. They have a big impact on animals, plants and humans, as well as on industrial and cultural sectors. Salt farms are eco-friendly ― they make tidal flats valuable as a natural resource with comparative advantages.
However, due to industrialization, much of the sea salt production in Korea has been scaled down to a bare minimum. Today much of the Korean sea salt is threatened by imported salts from China and Australia.
Fortunately, once considered a mineral, bay salt is now considered food, resulting in the legislation of the Salt Management Act to take care of its old traditions through law.
By Kim Joon
The author is a researcher at the Jeonnam Research Institute. ― Ed.