Michon, South Korea — Every fall, when trees are bare in this mountain village, the swallows depart their nests under farmer Um's eaves, and every spring they return, assuring him that the planting season is here.
This year, the news they brought for Mr. Um and his fellow farmers of Michon hamlet has not been particularly good. Oil prices have risen, and along with them, the price of fertilizer as well as of consumer goods. Fertilizer costs 75 percent more than last year. But rice prices have increased only 25 percent.
Heat for the tobacco-curing sheds used by Mr. Um and his neighbors is supplied once again by coal briquettes they make themselves, instead of the less effort-consuming oil the government once encouraged.
Mr. Um and his friends are waiting for news that the government monopoly will raise its tobacco purchase prices. They want at least a 40 percent increase but are not sure they will get it.
Meanwhile, says Mr. Um, he must borrow 800,000 won (about $1,333) on the private market and 500,000 won (about $833) from his cooperative each spring to pay for fertilizer, seed, and other costs of production. The cooperative's interest rates are reasonable, but on the private market he must pay 4 percent interest each month until the harvest, when he repays the principal.
At this rate, some of Mr. Um's neighbors wonder whether it would not be more profitable for them to give up their farms and try to get a factory job in the cities. Even a man who hauls goods on his own back in the cities can make enough money to send his son to the university, says Yun Eun-Shik, one of Mr. Um's young neighbors.
Mr. Um himself has one son in the Army and another who is working in a factory in Seoul. He is not sure whether his soldier son will decide to take over the farm after his military service or seek employment in the city. "He's being trained to operate heavy machinery in the Army now," says Mr. Um. "Maybe he will find a good job in the city. Then I'm not sure who is going to inherit this farm."
As Mr. Um chatted with a couple of visitors on the wooden porch of his tile-roofed home, the rain that had been coming down desultorily turned into a fierce downpour. Mr. Um, clad in T-shirt and green and white shorts, excused himself, grabbed his wife's pink parasol, and ran out to bring his cow inside her shed across the narrow courtyard.
"There's only one farmer in this hamlet who has a power tiller [a hand-driven baby tractor]," he says apologetically. "The rest of us still use oxen. A power tiller costs 800,000 won, and with oil getting more expensive all the time , this is not the time to buy one."
Still, life has improved in the village over the past 10 years. Better seeds and fertilizer mean higher yields and a rising standard of living. Mr. Um tore down his straw-roofed shack for a tile-roofed home and storage shed some nine years ago. His main complaint today is that farm income does not keep pace with urban income and that the more money he makes, the more needs he has to spend it on. He has gradually increased the two acres that he originally owned to three acres, on which he grows rice, tobacco, red peppers, and corn.
Mr. Um is not particularly interested in politics, but he does think that the president should be chosen directly by the voters, instead of indirectly as has been the case since the authoritarian Yushin Constitution was introduced by the late President Park in 1972.
He knows that the present transitional government headed by President Choi is working on a new constitution that will be submitted to a referendum in the fall.
"If the constitution continues the system of indirect elections, I will vote against it," he said emphatically. "I think the candidates should have to come to the voters and give us a chance to choose between them."
The rain had stopped, and Mrs. Um, who had returned from the fields a half hour earlier with a basket of potatoes on her head, was obviously impatient for her guests to be gone so that she could start preparing lunch for the family. A black-tailed swallow skimmed over the roof of the shed and dropped into her nest directly above us. We made our excuses and left, as the cow mooed to be let out once more.