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Wired Farmers

Ki Ho Park for TIME.
THE WORLD IN HIS HANDS: Farmers like Lee Jong Woo learn how to network with Korean farmers, with the Internet.

They're up with the sun—checking their e-mail. Growers who surf the Net reap a good harvest

Lee Dong Soo raises chickens. He began while in the South Korean navy in the 1950s as a way of making pocket money. Later chickens became his life. But in 1990, land prices were so high on the Korean mainland that Lee picked up his chickens and moved to Koje Island, an obscure dollop of land off Korea's southeastern coast. The move came with a price. Lee found himself cut off from his markets, his fellow chicken farmers—even his family, who stayed on the mainland.

Alone on an island with 40,000 chickens—thank heaven for the Internet! Since he got connected, Lee says profits have soared, his social life has improved and he has gained fame as the cyber-chicken man of South Korea. From his shabby farm office, Lee sends advice by e-mail to university professors and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. "If I wasn't using a computer, I would be just another old farmer, a nobody," says Lee. "It feels good to be part of the world."

South Korea's ambition is to be one of the most wired countries on the globe. Already, 51% of urban households have a computer, yet only 24% of the nation's farm families do. "We want to narrow the Internet gap," says Kim Hyun Soo, a director at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Kwachon. The purpose is not just to connect far-flung farmers, or to make their jobs easier. "The key," says Kim, "is to break the vicious cycle in which poverty breeds poverty for farmers."

As a relatively small country with good infrastructure, Korea can more easily accomplish that goal than vaster, poorer lands. It already has some cutting-edge successes. Two years ago, Lee Jong Woo left a career in Seoul as an advertising manager to return to his family homestead in Chonan City, 100 km south of Seoul. Lee's father was ill and, as the eldest son, it was his duty to take over the rice farm. He hardly knew what he was in for. Tilling the fields put Lee in the hospital several times. His first harvest netted only a few thousand dollars. In his sick bed anguishing over the farmer's lot, Lee had a brainstorm: cut out the expensive middlemen. Says Lee: "E-commerce was the answer to my prayer."

He set up a homepage offering direct rice shipments from his farm to consumers. Then came the big challenge: how to make his rice unusual enough. Lee realized that farm rice tastes better than rice consumed in the city. The secret: country rice isn't hulled until shortly before it is cooked. He leased storage space, filled it with unhulled rice, and in April started offering to ship rice only a couple of days after it had been hulled. Now he sells 25% more rice than a year ago. His skeptical family and neighbors have become converts. "My brother told me not to make a fool of myself," he laughs, "like a typical city slicker."

To quicken this trend, the Korean government is bringing computer training to the hinterland. It has outfitted a bus with a server, a satellite dish and 15 notebook computers. The bus travels around the countryside giving two-day seminars for farmers. "All we need is a parking space," says the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry's Kim. The vehicle should teach 1,000 farmers basic computer skills by the end of the year, and more buses will be added next year.

On a recent afternoon, the mobile computer bus was in Kongju City, 160 km south of Seoul. The first order of business was to put the students, mostly middle-aged farmers and their wives, at ease in the alien environment. The teachers emphasized that no one would be blamed if the computers were damaged. "Many farmers visibly shake while moving the mouse because they are so nervous," explains Hahm Tae Soo, a college student volunteering his time on the bus. "Some press down on keys until their wrists hurt. They believe that the buttons need a hard push to work."

By the end of the course, each student has a basic understanding of how to use a computer. Soh Byung Ho, a cucumber farmer, attended with his wife and laughed about their apprehensions on the first day. "We looked at this machine and wondered how to open it," he says. "The next challenge was starting it." Some of their neighbors are already wired up. Kim Myung Kwan, 32, says he checks online information on cucumber supplies in South Korea and now sells his cucumbers for 30% more than before. "In farming today," he says, "the first requirement is the computer, not the land."

Lee Dong Soo, with his chickens on Koje Island, was an early convert to the computer age. His daughter gave him a hand-me-down machine in the mid-'90s, but he couldn't conquer the arcane commands. When the more accessible Windows operating system hit the market, Lee started using the computer for his accounts. Then came the Internet. First thing every morning, Lee reads the news online and then chats with other farmers: one piece of advice he offered saved a younger man $30,000. Last year, Sangju University asked him to visit the campus and give a lecture to agricultural students—a dream come true. "It was my one big wish to study at a college," he says. As his fame spread via stories in Korean newspapers, giant trading company Samsung signed up Lee to give inspirational talks to its managers on the power of the Internet.

When Lee needs a break from the farm, he strolls around the town of Shinhyon, Koje's largest. He often finds himself wandering into the local Internet cafE. On his first visit, the proprietor asked if he was looking for his grandchildren. Lee gets a good laugh out of that. Kids just use the Internet for fun, he says. For him, and possibly a lot of farmers, it has brought a whole new future.

—Reported by Stella Kim/Koje Island

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