PYONGYANG, North Korea – Plug your noses and ready your "Juche fertilizer." It's time to prep the frozen fields in North Korea.
North Korea relies on its farmers to squeeze absolutely all they can out of every harvest. It's a tall order in a country with 25 million mouths to feed that is mostly mountains, hamstrung by international trade sanctions and, beyond a handful of showcase cooperatives, hard-pressed to modernize its agricultural sector.
Without doubt, life as a farmer in North Korea is harsh. But there are some signs of change in how North Korea is treating its fields and its farmers.
In typically propagandist fashion, the North's state media are already reporting that workers inspired by leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's address are heroically churning out "117 percent" of their production quotas of what they call "Juche fertilizer."
A grain of salt is certainly in order. What exactly the patriotic-sounding Juche fertilizer is isn't all that clear, though it's likely a mix of largely organic components augmented with some chemicals. Because of the general lack of livestock, human feces are a key ingredient. Juche refers to the North's longstanding but mostly aspirational policy of self-reliance.
The battle in the fields, however, has certainly begun.
With the ground still frozen as the North waits out its notoriously cold winters, farmers, joined by workers and students mobilized from the cities, are in the process of transporting truckloads of pungent fertilizer to fields across the country for the planting season ahead.
Kim Song Ryong, head technician at the Migok Cooperative Farm in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, said it takes about 20 to 25 days to distribute the compost. In March, it will be spread over the fields in an even layer and then ploughed in below the surface.
"Our respected supreme leader comrade Kim Jong Un instructed us that agriculture is the main approach to building a strong economy and country," he said in an interview with AP Television News. "To get the best harvest with scientific farming, all our farmers and workers are out in the fields to improve the quality of the soil."
In the past, the country's over-reliance on scientific magic bullets has had tragic results.
Overuse of chemical fertilizers that began in the 1950s devastated the natural microbiotic soil environment and fueled a cycle in which its fields grew increasingly dependent on ever-more-artificial fertilization. In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union and Pyongyang's other communist benefactors disrupted the supply of that fertilizer — which, coupled with other factors, led to widespread famine.
But Pyongyang appears to have learned some lessons since.
According to Randall Ireson, a private consultant and former nongovernmental program director in the North, farmers have shifted their emphasis since about 2000 to adding compost and organic fertilizers to rebuild the organic content in the soil and revivify microorganisms.
"What I've seen and heard of is the use of effective rapid aerobic composting of plant residue and, where available, animal and human manure, with the composted material further augmented with some chemical fertilizer," he said. "The addition of chemical fertilizer to the mix makes it "non-organic" by a strict definition, but the other aspects are generally sound and sustainable, if managed correctly."
Ireson noted that the depressed economy, lack of foreign exchange and weak industrial sector combine to make the acquisition of foreign chemical fertilizer difficult. But he said the push in the North for composting, while poorly designed at first, has gradually improved so that farms have started to produce fertilizer using local, low-energy methods.
"Buying more would be the easy, if not environmentally or economically sustainable, way to boost farm production," Ireson said. "Lacking that resource, the push has been to find local resources, which I think is quite appropriate."
More importantly, policy revisions under Kim Jong Un have since 2012 given farmers more incentive to produce above the state quota and to take more of a personal stake in field outcomes. Though details are scant, farmers can sell excess produce for a profit and smaller, essentially family-sized, work units have been established to make the rewards more direct.
Outside experts generally agree the changes are a step in the right direction — China and Vietnam had success with similar agricultural reforms.
But they also quickly warn it remains unclear how widely and fully implemented the revisions have been.
"It's always hard to know what the ag situation really is," said Ireson. "There's a tendency to concentrate on technical aspects of farming (in the North), but the farmers are pretty clever and know how to do things. The main constraint is limited resources and, at least until recently, little personal incentive to produce beyond the quota."