up with the sunchecking their e-mail. Growers who surf the Net reap
a good harvest
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.
By ANTHONY SPAETH
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 farmerseven
his family, who stayed on the mainland.
Alone on an island with 40,000 chickensthank 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 studentsa
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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