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Solar businesses cause concern for salt farmers

Aug 31,2019
Sixty-six-year-old Kim Yong-hee has been farming bay salt in Sinan County, South Jeolla for the past 30 years.

But starting next year, Kim will need to find a different line of work.

“I feel so hopeless ever since the salt field landlord said to vacate the land by the end of the year,” said Kim. “I don’t know what I should do to earn a living.”

The owner of the land Kim has been farming has decided to lease it to a solar power business, which will pay up to three times as much as the rent that can be earned from salt farmers.

Bay salt refers to the salt produced from a process of naturally drying sea water that has pooled in reservoirs.

After a day or two of sun exposure, a thin layer of bay salt forms, which farmers scrape off and harvest.

Sinan County produces 300,000 tons of bay salt a year, which amounts to 75 percent of the bay salt produced in the country. Half of the county’s 970 salt farmers rent salt fields to make a living.

A four-hectare (10-acre) salt farm can produce around 6,000 20-kilogram (44-pound) sacks of bay salt annually; earning around 18 million won ($14,823) based on an average price of 3,000 won a bag.

However, in May prices fell from 4,000 won the previous month to 3,600 won a bag which led farmers to stop producing salt for 15 days. Prices dropped even further in June, bottoming out at just 2,000 won a bag.

Only recently did bay salt wholesale prices go up, with a 20-kilogram sack costing 3,400 won as of Aug. 14.

“People are giving up as salt prices are unsatisfactory and a lot of the workers are seniors,” said Park Hyeong-ki, the head of the association of bay salt producers in Sinan County.

The association announced last Saturday that 35 percent of the around 2,800 hectares of salt fields in the area has been leased or sold to solar power businesses.

It has been reported that some solar power businesses are offering landlords 60 million won each year for 20 years to lease four hectares of land.

Some land owners are said to be offering 3 million won as compensation to the now landless farmers.

Although it may be eco-friendly and profitable to utilize the land in this way, experts said it is almost impossible to restore the land back into salt farms after it has been converted to produce solar energy. The salt farms in the area have been producing salt for over a century.

“When solar power facilities are built next year, I will have to leave this place,” said Lee Pan-do, a 67-year-old salt farmer who has been farming bay salt for 13 years.

The company from which Lee has been renting salt fields offered 13 of its 17 salt fields to be used for solar power facilities.

The demand for clean energy is increasing. Since President Moon Jae-in announced the phase out of nuclear energy early into his administration, the current Korean government has set the goal of raising the contribution of renewable energy, which was 7.6 percent in 2017, to 20 percent by 2030 and to 35 percent by 2040.

According to the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco), there are nine solar power substations in Sinan County, which produce around 130 megawatts of energy a year.

Kepco is planning on creating a 100 megawatt facility on Amtae Island in a bid to reach the county’s 291 megawatt demand.

It seems while Sinan County may be winning in terms of energy efficiency, Koreans could be losing their biggest source of local salt.

BY JIN CHANG-IL [jung.myungsuk@joongang.co.kr]