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Korean consumers fascinated by expensive, unconventional fruit

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Shine Muscat grapes grown at a farm in North Gyeongsang Province / Courtesy of the North Gyeongsang Province Government
Shine Muscat grapes grown at a farm in North Gyeongsang Province / Courtesy of the North Gyeongsang Province Government

By Yoon Ja-young

Fruits that come with high price tags are flying off the shelves, prompting farmers to switch to these new crops, as they purport to bring higher incomes.

According to Shinsegae Department Store, orders for its Chuseok holiday gift box comprising apple mangos and Shine Muscat grapes increased by 27 percent compared with the previous year, surpassing by far the 4.7 percent growth of the total sales of fruit gifts.

Shine Muscat grapes are a variety of seedless green grapes first developed in Japan, boasting high sugar content. They are more expensive than conventional grapes. At E-mart's online shopping mall, a 2.5-kilogram box containing three bunches of Shine Muscat grapes comes with a 66,600 won ($57) price tag, while a 3-kilogram box of top-grade Campbell grapes grown in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, is sold at 19,500 won.

Despite the high prices, Shine Muscat grapes took 53.6 percent of the total grape sales at E-mart from August of last year to April of this year, which is up 22 percentage points from the same period a year earlier. E-mart expects that it will occupy to 70 percent of the total grape sales this year.

"They are expensive, but I buy them from time to time as my son loves them. I wish the prices would go down," said Kim Eun-ha, a housewife in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. She said it is hard to say no every time her son says he wants the "sweet green grapes."

As demand for the grapes is soaring, their cultivation is also increasing. According to the agriculture ministry, the cultivation area of Shine Muscat grapes in the country totaled 3,579 hectares this year, nearly doubling from 1,867 hectares in 2019.

Farmers are also increasing the production of apple mangos, a variety of mango with reddish skin that is sweeter than the conventional type. At SSG Food Market, a single apple mango weighing 300 grams from Jeju Island is priced at 19,800 won.

"I would rather have only one apple mango than a few ordinary yellow mangoes. Its flavor is totally different," said Ha Hyun-ju, an office worker in Busan. She said she has been enjoying other subtropical and tropical fruits, as they remind her of her summer vacations in Southeast Asia before the pandemic.

Local governments are encouraging farmers to grow unconventional subtropical fruits to increase their incomes. According to the Rural Development Administration, the cultivation area of subtropical fruits totaled 170 hectares as of 2019, up over 50 percent from 2017. Mangos and passion fruit topped the list in terms of cultivation area, followed by bananas and dragon fruit.

These fruits can now grow in Korea due to rising temperatures. Local governments are supporting farmers switching to these crops, as the temperatures are expected to continue rising. If global warming continues at its current pace, 62.3 percent of Korea's cultivation area is expected to become subtropical by 2080, some reports show.

In this November 2018 file photo, a farmer harvests dragon fruit at his farm in Yeongdong County, North Chungcheong Province. Courtesy of Yeongdong County
In this November 2018 file photo, a farmer harvests dragon fruit at his farm in Yeongdong County, North Chungcheong Province. Courtesy of Yeongdong County

Choi Seong-tae, a researcher at Gyeongsangnam-do Agricultural Research & Extension Services, said that subtropical fruit grown in Korea has a competitive edge over imported subtropical fruit.

"To fulfill quarantine procedures, imported fruit often goes through fumigation and vapor heat treatment. Overseas farmers also harvest fruit that is unripe, as it takes time until it can reach consumers in Korea. Korea's farmers, meanwhile, can wait until the fruit is fully ripe. This means that once the imported fruit arrives here, its quality is not as good as it would be in its country of origin," Choi said.

The transition to such "luxury fruit," however, is also drawing concern, as consumers who just want ordinary fruit may see prices rising eventually as their supply is reduced, as more farmers switch to growing more lucrative fruits. The cultivation area for apples, for instance, has contracted for three consecutive years, and the area dedicated to growing pears has been on a downward spiral over the past 20 years.

"While the sales of Shine Muscat grapes have skyrocketed at department stores and other quality fruit retail channels, we don't find those fruits at ordinary grocery stores for the working class," said Lee Eun-hee, a professor of the Consumer Science Department of Inha University. "I think that also we are experiencing the polarization of fruit consumption."


Yoon Ja-young yjy@koreatimes.co.kr


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