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#Fridaysonthefarm: Tending the Healing Harvest in the High Desert

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Story by Anita Brown, NRCS California; photos by NRCS California

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.


When Kyung Pil-Kim and his wife Mary finished long careers in uber-urban Los Angeles, they were ready for something different -- and they got it. The couple now lives on 20 acres of high desert in Lucerne Valley near Victorville, California.

It's an arid landscape, dotted with Joshua trees so named by Mormon settlers who found the plants prayerful looking. Here the sunny days and cool nights pump sugar and flavor into the fruit of the jujube trees, carefully cultivated by Kim and about 50 other Korean farmers.

This Friday, meet this growing community that, with support from NRCS, tends the healing harvest in the high desert.

Earth team map for article

The Healing Harvest

While unfamiliar to many Americans, jujubes are eaten in scattered locations of the world as snacks or fruits.

But in southern California's small but growing community of Korean farmers, jujubes are primarily grown for their considerable medicinal qualities, according to Jae Lee.  A professor of Asian medicine, an acupuncturist, a reporter and an NRCS Earth Team volunteer, Lee says jujubes are the fruit of harmony.  They aid digestion and detoxification, increase energy and relieve insomnia.

The Kims plan to add five acres of the healing jujube trees to the 7.5 already planted on the small but growing farm, and they want to add a nursery.

The Kims plan to add five acres of the healing jujube trees to the 7.5 already planted on the small but growing farm, and they want to add a nursery.

"The high desert is a meditative and healing place,” says Kyung Pil-Kim. “We begin each day praying. My dream is to bring people here to heal, from rheumatism and arthritis."

Conservation Connection

Kim just finished his first project with NRCS -- a hoop house that he reinforced with his own money to withstand the forceful wind gusts that sweep over the desert.

Kyung Pil-Kim recently erected a hoop house with NRCS assistance.

Kyung Pil-Kim recently erected a hoop house with NRCS assistance.

"Please tell the people at NRCS thank you for this house,” says Kim. “To me it means a new opportunity."

The opportunity, explains Kevin Kang, is for the farmers to diversify beyond the stout jujubes to squash, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, tender lettuces, chard and kale—things that could never withstand the desert’s brutal sun and wind. “And critters,” adds Kang. "You look around and don't see many birds, rabbits and rodents, but you plant things here in the desert and they appear like magic."

Kang, a contract employee for NRCS, not only provides conservation assistance but also acts as a translator and a vital connection between the agency and the Korean community (his own father farms ume, a Japanese plum). It is a connection just four years in the making.

Historically the local service center worked primarily with foresters and with hay and dairy farmers. In 2013, the office had “zero contracts with Korean farmers,” says Holly Shiralipour, the local district conservationist with a clear talent and passion for building community bridges. "Today we have 65."

Community Growth

How did this relationship take root and grow?

Hwa Yong Chung, president of the Hi-Desert Jujube Coop, provides a bit of context. Today there are approximately 50 farmers with existing or developing jujube farms in the region, he says, up from just four farms a decade ago. By 2013, there were enough Korean farmers in the region to form a Cooperative -- and to raise Holly's awareness of the growing Korean farming community and their need for service.

NRCS and Korean farmers connected to establish a farmer coop and outreach program. From left: reporter and NRCS Earth Team volunteer Jae Lee; NRCS District Conservationist Holly Shiralipour; Cooperative President Chung Hwa Yong; and Soil Conservationist Technician and translator Kevin Kang.

NRCS and Korean farmers connected to establish a farmer coop and outreach program. From left: reporter and NRCS Earth Team volunteer Jae Lee; NRCS District Conservationist Holly Shiralipour; Cooperative President Chung Hwa Yong; and Soil Conservationist Technician and translator Kevin Kang.

The USDA’s Rural Development staff helped Holly and the Korean farm community form the Cooperative as NRCS increased its ability to serve the community. NRCS had one Korean speaking employee, Haejin Lee, who made the six-hour round trip to the farms as often as her packed engineering schedule would allow. Ben Park, an empathetic and energetic Korean volunteer turned employee with the conservation district, invested time in the outreach effort as well. And Holly, a tireless cheerleader for the Earth Team volunteer program, enlisted numerous volunteers in the effort.

One of the first volunteers was Professor Jae Lee, also a local reporter for the Korean Times out of Los Angeles.  He interviewed Holly and found that the agency's soil health messages resonated with his own understanding of human and environmental ecology. Lee wrote articles on soil heath and NRCS services for the paper, and eventually for his own magazine called Korean Valley.

Jae Lee and Kevin Kang share a photo of Japanese plums, called ume, pictured in a recent edition of Lee's magazine, Korean Valley.

 

Jae Lee and Kevin Kang share a photo of Japanese plums, called ume, pictured in a recent edition of Lee’s magazine, Korean Valley.

The farmers and the Hi Desert Jujube Cooperative show early success. They landed a contract with Costco last year to sell 20,000 pounds of jujubes in just two markets - San Francisco and Orlando - and they sold out within days. This year they expect a contract two to three times larger.

Hwa Yong Chung, president of the Hi-Desert Jujube Coop, wants the Lucerne Valley to be to jujubes what Washington is to apples. The conditions for top quality are perfect here, he says.

Hwa Yong Chung, president of the Hi-Desert Jujube Coop, wants the Lucerne Valley to be to jujubes what Washington is to apples. The conditions for top quality are perfect here, he says.

Return on Investment

"Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener."  -Thomas Jefferson

Back at Mary's Farm, Kyung Pil-Kim has several more conservation projects planned: mulching for organic matter and moisture retention, more efficient irrigation and maybe a windbreak to tame the dust.

Kim's neighboring farmers have similar goals that will keep the local conservationists busy for years to come.

Kim’s neighboring farmers have similar goals that will keep the local conservationists busy for years to come.

Coop President Chung says the demand for jujubes is growing, and more farmers are relocating to spend their golden years farming on the High Desert. Jae Lee will soon join them and add “farmer” to his already-long list of occupations.

Learn more about NRCS assistance and volunteer programs near you.

Join the Conversation

Follow the #Fridaysonthefarm and other voluntary conservation stories on @USDA_NRCS Twitter and @USDA Facebook.  View the interactive ESRI storymap of this #Fridaysonthefarm feature.