Some people outside of South Korea may remember Gangwon province, located some 50 miles from North Korea, as the location of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. To locals, however, the cool and mountainous region is known for its firm, large potatoes that are used to produce delicacies such as dumplings and pancakes.
Demand for Gangwon’s famed potatoes, however, came crashing down this year with the coronavirus outbreak, as restaurants and school canteens around the country closed down, sapping demand for the crop.
According to an agricultural official in the provincial government who didn’t want to be named, some 11,000 tons (9,980 metric tons) of potatoes from last year’s harvest are in storage and risk rotting away if they don’t reach consumers before April. Farmers say prices have fallen to a level that allows them to make only razor-thin margins.
Provincial governor Choi Moon-soon spurred to action and put out a call on Twitter on March 11 for people to support Gangwon’s potato farmers. In partnership with the local farmers’ guild, the government launched a heavily discounted campaign online for Gangwon potatoes, offering 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of potatoes for just 5,000 won ($4), with shipping costs covered by the province. The price is less than a third of retail prices at grocery stores.
Choi’s campaign worked. The website’s server crashed on the first day the site went live on March 11, according to local media reports. The online shop later increased its maximum order capacity from 1,400 to 8,000 boxes of potatoes a day, with the goods quickly selling out again the next morning.
The potato frenzy has even spawned a new term—“pocketing,” or “potato ticketing,” referring to the competitive ordering process. Some, discouraged by their “pocketing” failures, even called on Choi to implement something akin to Korea’s national face-mask rationing program.
Even some people outside of the agriculture industry are benefiting from the potato fire sale. Kim Seong-ho, the owner of a small business in Gangwon which specializes in local dishes made from potatoes, tweeted to the governor saying his online store had a huge increase in sales a day after the potato sale started.