The government of the People's Republic of China has formulated a series of policies in agricultural information services and tried several approaches in delivering information services to rural areas in order to develop its agriculture and rural economy and to facilitate production, business operations and farmers' income growth. Some of these approaches have produced important achievements and captured the attention of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). To analyse the experiences in order to improve information services and identify the more effective and easy-toreplicate models for use in other regions of China or even other developing countries, FAO commissioned the Information Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture to set up a study group. This group of researchers conducted field surveys during the first half of 2003 in four counties, one city and one district: Jinyun county and Lanxi city of Zhejiang province, Shucheng county and Wuhu county of Anhui province, Fuyu county of Jilin province and Litong district of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (the specific case studies will be published on the FAO Web site).
After analysing the survey results, the researchers identified three successful information service models to be presented as good practices for possible replication. These three are characterized as: (1) Service station model. This is an information service centre located in counties, townships and villages that together form a three-level rural information service network. Each station relies on county agriculture bureaus, township agricultural technological service stations, agricultural economic management stations, cultural stations, large farmer households in crop farming and animal husbandry, specialized farmer associations and leading agro-enterprises for support in funding and content; (2) Farmers' home model. The farmers' home is established as an independent and open agriculture service facility integrating the functions of agricultural technology consultation, agro-technological extension, information services and business operations. It combines agro-technological extension with information services and provides essentially a "one-stop" service; and (3) Association model. This type of organization is operated autonomously by farmers with a common interest, such as growing a specific crop or raising certain animals, and the information services provided relate to that common interest, such as the Boer Goat Association. The associations provide their members with information on technology, crop seeds or animal breeds, production materials and marketing and related information services. A comparison of the three models renders the following features:
Users: The farmers' home model has the broadest reach to users, which includes farmers, enterprises and specialized farmer associations in the area where the farmers' home is located as well as producers and agro-business operators in the vast rural areas outside the area. As the local government supports the operation of the service station model, the users typically include producers and agro-business operators of agricultural products from the local community. The association model differs considerably in that its service is targeted at a very specific group of users in agriculture who produce similar products and who are members of the association.
Content: The service station model usually provides only advisory information services to farmers, while the content involves various agricultural production technologies, market details, demand and supply of products and policy information. Some service stations also provide marketing services in seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. The association model content focuses on production technology and market information of a particular group of products the members produce. At the same time, it also organizes centralized procurement of some production materials and marketing of agricultural products. At the farmers' home, farmers can get advisory information on agricultural production and management as well as purchase agro-production materials.
Major actors: The establishment, operation, development, input and management of the service station system and farmers' home are strongly backed by agricultural administrative departments of local government; associations are autonomously managed and operated by farmers. Consultation groups involving experts from the agriculture, forestry, water conservation and other agriculture-related bureaus with strong technical strength have been established in the service station and farmers' home to respond to enquiries. Compared to the association model, the service station and farmers' home involve more human resources and technological and management advantages that can fully tap agricultural technological talents in the governments at various levels. But as the specialized associations focus only on the study and development of the market of a particular product, and thus have very good knowledge about the market and rather complete information about that particular product, they then have more advantages for market development compared with the other two models.
Funding: The service station and farmers' home rely more on the support of government funding and hence have advantages in terms of financing. The association depends more on the economic profits made by selling agricultural production materials to farmers to cover its expenditure.
Geographic distribution: Service stations and associations are located in the rural areas close to farmers and are convenient to farmers seeking assistance. The farmers' home is located in towns at a somewhat long distance from farmers.
Costs: The establishment and operation of the service station and farmers' home greatly depend upon the financial support of government. Since the association is a civil organization voluntarily established by farmers, the operating costs are relatively low.
The various information services rely on computers, the Internet and other modern information dissemination resources as well as traditional information dissemination avenues such as television, radio, telephone, publications, briefing notes and blackboards.
Summarizing the reasons for the success of the three information service models highlighted in this report, the researchers found first that the quality of information service does not completely depend upon local economic conditions. What is more important is awareness of the local government about the need for a service and what is involved in providing it. In the surveyed areas where the economy is not well developed, the local government understood the importance of an agricultural information service and issued supportive policies and adopted measures to promote the creation of a service system. Local official support is one of the keys for the success of the three models selected for this report; where these models of information service are found, local officials had recognized that an agricultural information service is a public welfare endeavour. Even with financial difficulties, local governments managed to allocate funds to facilitate the rapid setting up of an information service network at the county, township and village levels.
Second, the researchers noted how attention was given to exploration, integration and utilization of existing information service resources. The information service consultation committee in two of the models consists of specialists from agriculture, forest, water conservation and business administration who can respond to the diverse demands of farmers. The agricultural information service agencies provide services targeted at rural areas and farmers through active collaboration with television stations, newspaper and periodical editors and the agricultural television and broadcast school.
Third, the researchers noted that the quality and enthusiasm of information service workers are continuously improved to more effectively and accurately respond to farmers' information needs and provide knowledge and information that can have impact on the success and growth of farmers' businesses as well as the local economy.
Information dissemination practices in rural China have proven that the development of a rural information service system that government promotes realize more substantial achievements and are endorsed by officials at grassroots organizations, enterprise managers and farmers. However, rural information services in some areas still face a number of difficulties, including human resource shortages and capacity, technological constraints, insufficient content and limited funding. The physical networks and organizational capacity of services need to be established and improved in many areas. The exploration and development of information content and the improvement of information service quality need to be further studied and promoted.
Looking at the demand side of information, the researchers concluded that it is very difficult for information services to produce large scale effects because of the current low levels of organized farmers, market orientation in rural areas, agricultural industrialization and specialization. Where there is little profit from agriculture and/or where farmers have lost their enthusiasm for agriculture, there results an insufficient demand for information and existing information resources are under utilised. Along with strengthening the provision of information services, the need to improve the organization, agricultural production specialization and industrialization levels to stimulate the demand for and guide the consumption of information must be addressed with great effort in rural China.