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From left, community leaders Pak Yong Kee, Ri Yong Sil and Pak Kum Chol at Pongui Cooperative Farm in Sariwon City, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The farm is participating in an agricultural development project with support from MCC. Dan Wiens

From left, community leaders Pak Yong Kee, Ri Yong Sil and Pak Kum Chol at Pongui Cooperative Farm in Sariwon City, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The farm is participating in an agricultural development project with support from MCC. Dan Wiens

MCC promotes sustainable farming in North Korea

Tim Shenk
July 29, 2009

AKRON, Pa. — Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is launching a project to help farmers in North Korea produce more grain through environmentally sustainable practices.

North Korea, officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), has experienced serious food shortages in recent years, and MCC has donated tens of thousands of tons of food to people in the DPRK since 1995.

MCC is undertaking the new project to help farmers in the DPRK increase their harvests of rice, wheat, barley and corn through what is known as "conservation agriculture."

Conservation agriculture aims to increase organic matter and nutrients in the soil, boost yields and minimize expensive inputs such as fertilizer and fuel, according to James Frey, an MCC worker from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who is coordinating the project.

For example, conservation agriculture involves leaving crop stubble to decompose in the fields and avoiding plowing in order to protect beneficial organisms that recycle soil nutrients. It can also involve planting clover and other "cover crops" between harvests to protect and enrich the soil.

Frey says that conservation agriculture is especially well-suited to the DPRK, where fuel and fertilizer are in short supply. Since 2006, tensions over the DPRK's nuclear program have caused countries such as South Korea to halt fertilizer shipments and other aid the country. Many farmers in the DPRK now receive only about one quarter of the fertilizer they need, according to Frey.

MCC is planning to provide agricultural equipment, supplies and training to three cooperative farms in Bongchon County, Sariwon City and Hwangju County in southern DPRK. Each farm has several thousand residents who live and work together.

Frey made his introductory visit to the farms in April with three MCC colleagues.

"We got the impression that from the youngest to the oldest, everyone was involved," Frey says.

During that visit, farmers and government officials did not speak directly about the problems of hunger and malnutrition, which stunt the growth of more than one third of children in the DPRK, according to the World Health Organization.

However, Frey observed that everyone involved in the project seemed very focused on the need to increase production at the communal farms. The farms provide roughly three-quarters of their harvests to the government, and the government distributes food to the general population.

Frey plans to visit the DPRK about four times per year to coordinate the project until its completion in December 2011. He is currently working on providing the cooperative farms with "no-till seeders," which are seed-planting machines designed for unplowed fields.

MCC laid some of the groundwork for the conservation agriculture project by hosting a delegation of DPRK officials on an educational visit to Canada in 2008.

The delegation visited a variety of farms and agricultural research centers in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario — and also spent time with the MCC Ontario board of directors and volunteers at Fraser Valley Gleaners, a Christian organization in Abbotsford, B.C. The Fraser Valley Gleaners have provided food for MCC shipments to orphanages and tuberculosis hospitals in the DPRK.

"We also wanted this to be about relationship-building," says Kathi Suderman, an MCC Northeast Asia representative from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

MCC's budget for the conservation agriculture project is $1 million U.S., which includes money from MCC's account with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an organization that receives funds from Canadian farmers and the Canadian government.

Financial contributions for this project should be designated "North Korea" and may be made online at mcc.org/donate or through any MCC office.