Lee Woo-chang, head of KomerCN, examines corns grown at his farm in Cambodia. Provided by the company
March 28, 2011
Lee Woo-chang, 42, set up a farming company called KomerCN in Cambodia back in December 2008 to grow corn. Lee started out small. His initial farm was on 21 hectares (51.89 acres) of land in Wiwalton Village, Kampong Speu Province. However, he wants to expand the farm to 13,000 hectares.
Lee also formed a corn agricultural cooperative with 1,400 Cambodian farmers who are cultivating 7,000 hectares of land. Lee plans to purchase all the corn produced by the cooperative and export it to Korea, which is heavily dependent on corn imports.
According to Lee, it will be one of the first times that Korea has imported corn from a Korean-managed overseas farm.
Lee is in talks with Daesang, a major local food producer, for the Cambodian corn supplies. “If the corn is tested to be safe from toxins or molds, it may happen,” Lee said.
Daesang buys 500,000 tons of corn a year. KomerCN and Daesang are now doing a field study of the farm.
“This is a feat achieved only two and a half years after we entered Cambodia,” Lee said.
Lee started looking outside Korea in 2007 when the international price of grain began shooting up. Lee was originally a livestock farmer, owning a large cattle farm in Asan, South Chungcheong.
But the price of animal feed, including corn, increased so much that he decided to start his own farm outside Korea. The prices kept raising and the feed was not only expensive but also hard to get.
“I thought if I go overseas and do farming myself, I could at least get a stable supply of grain,” he said.
In May 2008, Lee joined a government program and went to Cambodia to check out farming conditions there. Lee chose Cambodia because of the weather. The area’s average temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Except for the dry season between November and March, it is possible to have three rounds of harvests a year. “The Russian Far East is too cold. I thought it would be more productive to do farming in Cambodia,” Lee said.
Cambodia covers 181,040 square kilometers (44.7 million acres) of land and is twice as large as South Korea (99,000 square kilometers). However, the population is only 15 million and unlike China and Russia, there is less likelihood that Cambodia may limit grain exports. The fact that teenagers and young adults make up a large portion of its population is also a plus.
“There are a lot of human resources. Because manufacturing has not yet developed much, farming is still a major source of income in Cambodia,” he said.
In December 2008, he invested 2.5 billion won ($2.2 million) including 800 million won he borrowed from the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and founded a company, which he named “KomerCN,” a combination of Korea and Khmer, the old name of Cambodia.
Wiwalton is a remote village with 30,000 people. There is no reservoir or electricity. Lee spent six months of the year there starting to develop the farm. He has imported a total of 69 tons of corn from Cambodia to Korea so far.
Of course, the project is not without difficulties. Because of the high humidity and temperature, corn becomes easily molded. A large amount of corn is wasted because of the toxin from mold.
“We are now building a drying storage facility. When it is completed in June, we’ll no longer need to worry about mold,” he said. South Chungcheong provided 39 million won for the facility.
In July 2009, Lee and local residents formed a farming cooperative association. Lee gave them corn seeds and taught them how to grow corn. The number of cooperative members increased rapidly as Lee promised to purchase all harvested corn. Now it has 1,400 members and the number is expected to reach 3,000 next month.
“Buying and cultivating lands on one’s own can be stable but it costs too much money,” said Cho Rae-cheong, a deputy director at the Agriculture Ministry. “It is a good idea to spread the risks by purchasing from the cooperative.”
“The price of grain surged in 2008 and some 50 companies went abroad to establish overseas food production bases but they have exported only a small amount of grain to Korea,” said a ministry official. “But large exports will help stabilize food prices here.”
By Lim Mi-jin, Limb Jae-un [email@example.com]