Jihwang Yoo

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Korea
Fellow since 2020
Farmfra
This description of Jihwang Yoo's work was prepared when Jihwang Yoo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

Jihwang Yoo’s Farmfra Village offers more than a brief and simple experience of living a rural life. By serving as a safe stepping stone to finding an individual's autonomous lifestyle, Jihwang's model uniquely serves a dual purpose: revitalizing the millennials and regenerating rural areas. Farmfra can be a key to solving Korea's unprecedented crisis, which includes increasing suicide and depression rates among young millennials arising from standardized lifestyles and the severe extinction of rural towns and villages.

The New Idea

Unlike other rural revitalization projects that only financially support individuals to find their adaptive skills in rural settings as the ultimate solution, Farmfra systematizes physical and human resources in rural areas. By presenting a more accurate view of the rural ecosystem and practical methods of living in a rural setting, Farmfra reframes one’s transition to rural living as an accessible lifestyle option rather than one’s terminus in life. By refraining from asserting that rural lifestyle is the best available option, Farmfra instead helps millennial participants to leverage such experience to design their autonomous lifestyles.

Farmfra Village (Farm+Village) is a safe testbed for participants in their 20s to 40s to experiment with a different lifestyle in an almost extinct village in Namhae County of Korea’s Southernmost Province. The participants live, build houses, and farm together for about three months to a year. They attain diverse skills from communication to agriculture, all of which will serve as fundamental ingredients to making their aspired autonomous life come true. It operates on a decision-making system in which all residents come together to set rules and regulations, even for the most basic ordinances. While farming and housebuilding remain as collective work among the participants, each participant creates a customized project catered to his or her unique needs and interests. From poultry to making crafts with seashells that may later be personal business models, such individual project allows the participant to freely experiment with what each of them likes to do or learn. Through both group and individual projects, the participants get to reflect upon their life values and obtain skills in cooperation and expression of one’s opinion that are crucial to sustaining the self-reliant lifestyle. Experiencing such a democratic, autonomous communication system within a secure community protects them from many risks, which are also vital to young people who have a relatively less stable base or initial capital.

Meanwhile, the physical location of the old extinct town enables Farmfra to revitalize not only the rural areas but also the local population with the influx of youth in the area. The methods of building relationships are carefully designed to create reciprocality between Farmfra participants and local residents. Instead of monetary-based exchanges, Farmfra's framework of building relationship captures the importance of mutual respect and willingness to offer services to one another. Through small interactions like giving greetings and asking small questions about farming, Farmfra participants learn subtle ways to make conversation and communicate with sensibilities. The town’s local residents, who tend to be less cooperative and welcoming to outsiders due to their conservative nature, slowly build up trust with the young participants by experiencing mutual growth. The younger Farmfra participants help the aged local community’s economy by providing workforce for their farmlands. As a generation of digital nomads, the participants also utilize online channels as their commercial routes for agriculture products. The Millennial participants also host various cultural events as a way of preserving local traditions and introducing new culture to the aged residents. In return, the participants receive valuable, seasoned tips and care from residents that are rarely attained online or elsewhere.

At a macro level, Jihwang Yoo’s model is a small yet significant step in terms of establishing a culture in which today’s young generation and the next generation can collectively solve social problems with the older local generation and experience mutual growth. The Farmfra participants help solve rural extinction problems with economic and cultural revitalization projects. In reverse, local residents help solve the young generation’s challenges by making their resettlement in rural communities easier and fulfilling their need to free themselves from a conformed society.

In making this model of intergenerational mutuality, Farmfra’s groundwork for securing the land through a partnership with the local government is also significant. Jihwang, having learned from the experience of being kicked out of private lands before, contacted Namhae County officials to ask for public land. With his proposal, which reflected viable contribution to Namhae’s revitalization including its potential benefit to the local community, Jihwang was able to retain a closed-down schoolyard for Farmfra and trust from the local government. Having convinced one of the most conservative administrative officials and the local government, Jihwang and Farmfra are receiving love calls from other counties.

Currently, Farmfra also serves as a community’s historian through archiving every available resource, including the daily lives of the Farmfra Village participants. Farmfra compiles their stories and knowledge into manuals for anyone who wants to incarnate their ideas of an autonomous lifestyle. Since these manuals extend beyond numbers and data, its applicability is extensive. Jihwang is planning to launch two more Farmfra Villages in different locations within the next two years, and these manuals would play critical roles in expediting the process. The manuals can also be protocols in nurturing more village hosts like himself, who can build and manage new communities. At the core of his strategies, he intends to spread the blueprints of how he has developed the infrastructure through ‘connectivity,’ including the vital partnerships he formed with county leaders in establishing Farmfra Village. The guidelines are detailed and flexible, which can be modified depending on the needs of different locations.

The Problem

South Korea is experiencing an unprecedented crisis where its people, especially the millennials, are feeling ever more alienated and unprotected by the old competitive and standardized system. Even the "successful" youth who have already attained highly coveted white-collar jobs are doubtful of their future. Yet the problem of decreasing population and aging society is becoming more severe at a national level, putting more economic and social burdens on the 2030s' shoulders. Both society's and the youth's needs for autonomous lifestyles are at their peak. However, in a very conformed culture of defining success, there aren't many choices available.

First, the rural extinction problem in Korea is a grave contemporary issue. 40% of rural regions at city, county, and district levels are at the risk of extinction, and out of those regions, eighteen cities, counties, and districts, including Namhae, are designated as high-risk extinction areas. As a result, more rural areas are turning into uninhabitable places as infrastructure falls day by day – schools, transportation, and banks closing down, houses deteriorating – leaving villages in ruins. The disparity between metropolitan and rural regions is worsening every year: the average annual economic growth rate from 2011 to 2017 was 3.6% and 2.2 % for urban and rural areas, respectively.

As rural villages become extinct, young people in rural areas tend to move to metropolitan cities in search of employment opportunities: every year, on average of 70,000 young people in their 20s have moved out from the rural areas to the bigger cities over the last ten years. In Dumo Village alone, home to the current FARMFRA village project, there are no young people between the ages of 19 and 39 other than FARMFRA staff and participants. Since primary production serves as the main means of economic activity in most rural areas, the lack of young people has an even more significant impact. The total number of young farmers in Korea is 8,000 to 10,000, which accounts for less than 1% of the 1 million total farming population. Not only that, the knowledge, culture, and skills our previous generation has accumulated over the years are also at the brink of extinction as rural regions collapse. Losing ethnic resources such as farming techniques and indigenous cultures is a problem that extends beyond the current society and into the next generation.

However, life isn't so easy for young people in cities, either. The millennials have been raised to seek a secure and high-paying job as the ultimate goal in life. The 2030s are over competing with each other to attain a well paid and highly recognized career within the already oversaturated market. Once they land on a coveted white-collar job, however, reality rarely meets their expectations. The income gap between the top 10% of an employee and the bottom 10% is 2.3 times, the fourth-highest in OECD countries. Consequently, the rate of new employees, leaving companies within their 1st year has risen from 27.7% in 2016 to 48.6% in 2019. This number seems to be associated with how the Korean 20s have the highest rate of 'burnout' syndrome, with 84.7% of them reporting to have severe health-related issues. Another factor that accounts for these young people's "unhappiness" is digitalization. The 2030s are already vulnerable to unhealthy comparisons due to social media: many of them witness others' career and life statuses and subconsciously compare them to their own. Being hyper-conscious of society's standards and social trends, they become even more desperate to stick to the "norm" to avoid being perceived as a "failure."

The psychological health of this youth generation is already at stake. According to a survey conducted by Seoul National University's Happiness Research Center, those in their 20s scored lowest both on their 'happiness' and 'self-esteem' index (2019). Being number one in suicide rates among OECD countries over the last consecutive 13 years, Korea has recently been alarmed by another troubling statistic: the most significant suicide rate increase in recent years was among teenagers and those in their 30s. With these statistics in hand, it seems urgent for the society to provide opportunities for the youth to find their definitions of success, where their independence and confidence can bloom even among those without a secure financial, physical, or psychological base. Currently, they cannot risk becoming the “outliers” who throw their passion to a job or project where the financial reward is not guaranteed.

The Strategy

As the first step in establishing Farmfra Village in Namhae, Jihwang knocked on the door of Namhae County Office and strategically formed collaborative relationships. The most significant milestone of Farmfra after its first official launch in 2019 is its official partnership with the Namhae county government and securing the land to make Farmfra Village come to life. The physical land itself plays the vital role in drawing out the full potential of Farmfra especially at an initial stage of actualizing the idea. From his failures in the past including being evicted from lands multiple times, Jihwang has figured out the most efficient way to build the fundamental framework of Farmfra Village: to form an official partnership with local government at a county level that is facing imminent danger of extinction. With seven years of preparation, Jihwang has already strategically built the solid network of people engaged in Farmfra spirits via various channels such as offline workshops and online media to make his first season of partnership with Namhae more stable and yet impactful. Despite the short duration of about eight months, Farmfra has already become a symbolic case that is recognized at a province level of paving a new pathway for relatively easier future partnership between the citizen sector and county offices. Jihwang also applied to public contests in order to work with administration offices and planned a survey project based on his own demand instead of simply asking for financial support. While collaborative cases between local government and citizen group have been limited to rather a one-way sponsorship, in which the local government simply funds the specific organization to operate short-term projects, Farmfra has implemented the form of an equal partnership. Farmfra was contracted to be the designated research service agency for initial planning of Namhae County’s policy for young people. It is rare for young adults to participate in research and policymaking process, especially in rural administrations. Jihwang has set a positive precedent for other regions and organizations to form a collaborative relationship in the future. Gyeongnam province, which embodies Namhae County, is also asking Farmfra for consultations in developing better policies for youth and revitalization of counties at the provincial level.

The works Farmfra has created in less than a year of collaboration has built trust with other county officials across the regions, particularly of those facing the extinction. Farmfra has successfully carried out both aspects of finding the needs/problems of citizens and coming up with solution models that are actually feasible. From 2020 and on, Farmfra is going to build education models for county officials from neighboring regions and youth participants who have serious interests in not only studying <Farmfra x Namhae County> case, but also implementing the Farmfra Village model in their own regions. Particularly, Farmfra’s manuals on ‘how’ it has designed its program based on specific resources could play a critical role in replication of the model. It could catalyze not only effective, but also very sustainable and high-quality collaborations among other administration offices. Farmfra’s manuals are open-source and comprised of daily archiving work. From photos and short video clips, these manuals also come in various formats, such as a guidebook with illustrations and video contents that could be shared online easily. Looking forward, Jihwang expects many rural areas facing the aggravated extinction problem quite soon. Other county officials are in fact, already contacting Farmfra to ask for help or its plan on initiating the next chapter in other locations. Although Farmfra’s current priority is focusing on advancing the Namhae model attentively, in their ultimate goal of making more Farmfra Village models throughout the nation, they consider these manuals the fundamental tool.

Alongside the land provision, Jihwang thought it was critical for it to have surrounding brands that could afford its operating expense when establishing Farmfra Village. Jihwang built 7 other brands revolving around Farmfra Village that could not only be the attracting points for others to join Farmfra Village, but also the business models that could sustain the Village operation: 1) Cobugi, a long-term autonomous housing model, 2) Ssuk Dae Bat, a stable profit model utilizing shared community farms and poultry farms to create revenue, 3) Farmfran, a poultry and livestock project 4) Farmfarae, one can grow into a professional cultural event planner who produces village-wide events, cultural events or educational workshops using the resources in Farmfra Village. 5) Farmfra Goods allow residents to design and produce various workwear and tools necessary for farming, gardening and house-building, and through their sales, revenue is generated and a profit model is established. 6) Farmppie is a membership community of people who support Farmfra’s values and visions, so its members are both the core consumers of Farmfra’s contents and products as well as partners in spreading Farmfra’s values. Lastly, all of these brands are based on 7) Farmfra platform so that every knowledge, information and product created by Farmfra and Farmppies together can be found in a single place. These seven brands play a pivotal role in providing a long-term foundation for young people who have decided to test their autonomous lifestyles in rural areas through Farmfra Village. Out of these brands, Farmppie especially has an important role of utilizing regular newsletters and media channels to provide information on rural areas and farming in a sophisticated manner, contributing to breaking down the psychological barrier against rural lifestyle. It is also establishing an online-based community of young people interested in rural settlement or already settled in rural villages.

Among these brands, Cobugi is particularly noteworthy. Cobugi is a 20m2 wooden mobile house established also as one of Farmfra’s brands to solve the housing issues prospective participants may face. There are not a lot of suitable housing for migrants to move into, and even if there were, information on them was too fragmented. As a solution, Cobugi manual provides an autonomous method for housing through which young people can choose where they want to live by building their own houses there. Cobugi was set up based on the average size of a farmer’s hut one can build on farmland (approximately 20m2), and the floor plan was well thought out to enable a higher quality of life than that of urban housing in the same size. It only takes half the cost of repairing a deteriorating house in a rural area to build a Cobugi, and the cost involved in maintaining it is much lower than monthly rent in metropolitan cities. In addition, young adults gain self-reliance skills and confidence to build their own housing in the future through the process of Cobugi-building, both of which act as major driving force and strength when they settle down in a rural area.

Even before settling down in Namhae in April 2019, Jihwang has initiated offline projects since 2016 on Cobugi (house-building), life-designing, and community building in small to medium sized workshops for those interested in pursuing autonomous lifestyles, but feel lost in initiating their first step. Under the vision of ultimately engineering and building Farmfra Village after securing the actual lands, he and the team focused on strengthening the vertical foundational work for Farmfra - gathering resources, systematizing them, and putting them into manuals. They were able to gather highly engaged participants of more than 500 people and a total of about 3,000 online social media followers along with a loyal group of 300 online community members called ‘Farmppies’ who make regular subscriptions to their newsletters or magazines.

Due to this existing network, participants filled up quite quickly when Farmfra finally launched its first Village model in 2019. Strategically opening up to a relatively smaller group of people, Farmfra Village started its first season with 12 residents. Although seemingly small, it was big enough to make a substantial cultural change among 130 Domo village residents. Eventually, Farmfra succeeded in attracting the entire county and province’s attention on the drastic change it had made on the conservative local residents, especially given that the majority was composed of elderlies over the age of 60, a very exclusive and conservative population. Even at two cultural festivals Farmfra Village has hosted (i.e., Domo Jamboree), almost all of the local residents participated in order to support the young millennials’ settlement in their hometown, a rare support system shown as their approval of the young newcomers.

Farmfra, however, is more than a bridge between the local residents and millennial newcomers. It builds an authentic “community” culture of which people across generations, socio-economic status, emotional, and physical conditions are connected in the common interest of life and living. Among ever so alienated millennials, who seek online communications over any interaction, Farmfra prepares people to communicate, make real conversations with another within and outside of its village. In Farmfra’s system of having every participant be responsible for carrying out their collective and individual projects, the participants need to figure out on their own about methods. For example, when they decide to farm crops like cabbage, they would have to walk around the village and ask for advice. Since there isn’t any hardware store in rural areas nor online platform, it is far more accessible, convenient, and economical for people to borrow tools or machines from neighbors door to door. To fully engage in projects and life, young newcomers have to depend on their local elderlies’ mouth-to-mouth wisdom and offline resources. Nevertheless, it is in that simple act of asking where people learn to be independent. By being dependent and vulnerable, one does not only learn and acquire information, but also learn to form relationships with the community. With such healthy independence building up in individuals, more people grow more open, embracing diversity.

The power of the act of asking and forming relationships by being vulnerable can also be spotted among the stories of the first 12 participants. All of them agreed on their experience at Farmfra Village, making a significant impact on their lives. After their months at Farmfra, 70% of them are pursuing lives different from the ones they followed before. Especially for the newlyweds who have decided to settle in Namhae after the season ended, found a house near the Farmfra Village site to continue living their autonomous lifestyle. Both of them were corporate employees back in Seoul, but after having moved to Namhae, they became writers who creatively deliver their Namhae life stories for a living. In one of the channels they communicate, biweekly columns in one of major newspapers, shares that while the word neighbor “was just a word read by the eye, it came to life” in their experience in Namhae. While there are still challenges faced in their choice of living and building their autonomous lifestyles, they are genuinely realizing and experiencing values of the unseen merits of life such as happiness, warmth, laughter - all purely from just living.

Last but not least Farmfra also actively utilizes online channels for both marketing and further lowering the barriers of living autonomous lifestyles, especially among the young generation residing in the metropolitan areas. On various social media channels, Farmfra communicates with the public in a sophisticated manner. What is creative here is that Farmfra uses the advocacy of the agricultural product they have co-harvested as one of their main contents. Thinking that a direct service to the consumer is a mutually safe and secure distribution channel, they’ve paved a way to show the whole process from farming to packaging in a very entertaining yet organic way. When customers orders spinach from them, the spinach comes with Farmfra’s published magazine inside the package. The magazine, named after the product they’ve harvested, curates Farmfra’s own stories of village life as well as other fun contents such as spinach recipes. By selling original stories with the product, Farmfra is inviting people both inside and outside of local communities to experience the agricultural business in a totally different, creative way. During last season alone Farmfra has farmed 14,000 square feet of spinach and successfully sold out of every product. Farmfra strives to become the secure distribution channel for both local residents as well as migrant youth , benefiting the future economies of the local community.

The Person

Born and raised in a town named Tongyeong at the edge of Namhae Sea, Jihwang grew up playing with his neighborhood buddies. At age 7, he even founded the “Neighborhood Olympics” when his friends ran out of games to play. During his first backpacking trip in Egypt in his sophomore year in college, he encountered children living under a car. Sensing a deep sense of anxiety in their eyes, Jihwang was shaken to his core upon realizing that a wide gap existed between these children - whose basic needs like food and housing were not fulfilled - and himself who was enjoying leisure such as traveling. This encounter served as a turning point for Jihwang to dive deeper into the wealth gap and economic inequality, leading him to venture out to Mongolia, China, and Southeast Asia in search of children who were unable to choose what life they wanted to live. After seeing the lives of disabled children at orphanages, discriminated children of minority races, and children of poor neighborhoods, he began to think about how he could fulfill their basic human needs.

After returning to Korea, he decided to be someone who “creates an environment that enables others to live the lives they want.” Focusing on three keywords - “Food, Housing, and Education” - he believed that helping these children to attain self-reliance through farming (food), house-building (housing), and learning how to choose their own life (education) could improve their lives. For these reasons, he set out to learn farming and construction skills on his own. After realizing that it was difficult to do so in Korea, he embarked on a two-year farming journey around the world. He visited thirty five farms, agricultural administration agencies, and training facilities in fourteen different countries to lay out the foundation for Farmfra. He also wrote a book titled “Farming Boys” based on his two-year trip and turned it into a movie, which was screened at six film festivals, including the prestigious Busan International Film Festival. He utilized such social media contents to improve awareness of and publicize issues surrounding the younger generation without capital and problems in rural communities, and could thus accumulate knowledge and credibility as an individual.

Four years after that, Jihwang solidified the Farmfra model with the Cobugi project (a mobile housing unit), community life, and farming experiments in a rural village. He faced numerous failures in regards to land ownership before launching Farmfra. Yet, instead of giving up, he built a robust network with the County of Namhae as well as its local residents and schools to run Farmfra upon a stable foundation. Jihwang feels the happiest and most fulfilled when he knows that he is building an ecosystem for the next generation. His ultimate goal is to establish a sustainable way of life for them.