In recent years, governments at various levels of China served as the major actor in actively promoting the establishment of an information service system in rural areas and have achieved significant results. From the survey of the six counties and districts, researchers noted the following key impacts:
· Farmers' perceptions of information services
The human organization and physical network of information service in rural China are being constructed. Local government in many areas have issued policies, adopted measures and invested heavily in human and financial resources in strengthening public awareness and training. They actively have promoted the extension of the network and development of human resources. As a result, the overall information service in rural areas nationwide has greatly improved. Understanding of modern information technology, such as computers and networks, among information service workers at the grassroots level and even farmers has improved. Their capability to collect, process and analyse information has been upgraded. For instance, workers at the village information service spots are all farmers, but they also know how to use computers to look for and download needed information or publish supply information of local agricultural products on the Internet. The ways by which information is delivered to farmers and to other agricultural industry operators are increasing day by day and the speed of information service is becoming faster and faster. Especially in those areas where information service organization networks have been well established, it is even easier for farmers to acquire information. For instance, among the 74 surveyed farmer households in the three counties of Shucheng, Wuhu and Jinyun, more than 80 percent indicated in the questionnaire that they obtain needed information through multiple channels. It is the common view of farmers that the governmentprovided information service in rural areas is important and practical. "Now we have helpers to assist us in farming," explained one farmer.
The efforts over the past several years to deliver information service to farmers have helped them to understand the importance of information. They now start to look for information instead of passively receiving it. And with new information, the traditional concepts and rationales have started to change. In the process of production and operations, farmers pay more attention to information on science, technology and markets. More and more farmers seek from information service agencies data on new crop varieties and new technology. Previously, farmers in Wuhu county, for example, tended to passively tolerate problems of a sluggish market. Now farmers actively use the Internet to improve market conditions and provide 95 percent of the supply and demand information of agricultural products. Qingshui village of Qingshui township in Wuhu is a specialized village in seedling production and tree nursery. The village invested over US$2 400 to establish the village information service to provide information to farmers free of charge. A tree-planting farmer then used the service to request, via the Internet, that he badly needed to purchase 500 trees. A few hours later, he received a phone call from the manager of a tree nursery in Jiangsu province who offered a price of US$0.24 lower than the market price, and a deal was made. At the same time, the farmer also found market outlets for his large stock of evergreen bushes. "I never imagined that it could be so quick and so true," he said happily. "It is all because of the Internet, and I will have bigger tree transactions done over the Internet in the future."
· Nature and scope of rural government services
Providing market information to farmers and enterprises is an important service that government should provide to agricultural producers under market economic conditions. Its current provision represents an important shift of government management and service functions from the previous focus only on agricultural production to providing market information to producers and business operators in rural areas and guiding agricultural producers to make science-based decisions. Information services have played an important role in the transformation of functions and in improving the efficiency of work, management and working styles of the government.
According to the needs of local agricultural development, information service agencies in many areas collect science and technology information from various newspapers, periodicals and the Internet and promptly transmit the information to producers in rural areas through blackboards, bulletin boards, printed materials, on-the-spot demonstrations, trainings and many other methods. The prompt dissemination of agricultural science and technology information has accelerated the transformation of science and technology research results, speeded up the extension and application of advanced and practical agricultural technologies and to some extent helped resolve the problems of disconnection between agricultural technological extension and the practical needs of farmers. This has improved the target accuracy and effectiveness of agricultural technological extension.
The farmers' home of Lanxi city, for instance, emphasizes the principle of combining material and information services. In addition to providing practical technological information, it also supplies new crop varieties, technology and pesticides suitable to local areas. In the past three years, it has introduced and sold more than 243 new crop varieties and pesticides and 95 100 kg of improved crop seeds, which have significantly helped in diversifying and improving the efficiency of agriculture in Lanxi.
When farmers go to agricultural extension agents with queries on diversified issues and subjects, it is both a pressure and a motivation for the agents. It reinforces the urgency of grassroots science and technological workers to learn modern agricultural science and technology, to master subject matter knowledge and market information and to broaden the coverage of their knowledge. As a result, it improves the quality of service to agriculture.
· Development of agriculture and the rural economy
Through various means, the information service network in rural areas has played an important role in providing farming and animal-raising technologies and market information and in bridging production and marketing; it has achieved satisfactory economic and social effects.
Information service organizations in many areas actively use such modern media as the Internet to publish supply and demand information of agricultural products so as to address difficulties in the marketing of agricultural products. For instance, Senshuai Bamboo in Jinyun county is a private enterprise that produces bamboo products, such as bamboo shoes and armchairs. Even though it has a rather strong capacity of production, research and development, it does not have access to outside market information. This has resulted, in the past, in sluggish sales of its products. In 2002, the Agricultural Technology 110 staff published the supply information of the bamboo products on the Internet, which attracted buyers from the United States and other countries, Hong Kong SAR and other areas within China who telephoned in orders. Since then, Senshuai's revenues have steadily risen. The Agricultural Technology 110 staff at the three levels in Jinyun county publish market supply and demand information for more than 75 special agricultural products, or about 90 percent of what is produced, on the Internet, which has led to a 20 percent increase in transaction volume since 2002.
In addition to marketing agricultural products through the Internet, information service agencies also collect market trend information of agricultural products through multiple channels and guide farmers to market their products at a proper time, which reduces losses and increases the income of farmers. Before the spring festival in 2002, for example, the Fuyu county information centre downloaded the information that "the price of corn will be in an upward trend after the spring festival" from the China Agricultural Information Network. After consolidation and analysis, the message, which guided farmers to sell their grains accordingly, was broadcasted during the county television station programme called Rural Areas in Fuyu. The price of corn went from US$0.07/kg before the spring festival to US$0.1/kg after the spring festival and farmers benefited from the informed suggestion to wait.
Through a public awareness drive via the Internet, the publicity of local products has been improved, which also has expanded the scale of external investment in local areas, promoted the effective connection between local resources with external funding resources and injected vigour into the development of local economy. Fuyu county in the past three years attracted more than US$28 million investment via the Internet; US$24 million of that came from a single project involving cooperation with a Japanese company to cultivate Chinese wild rye.
Strengthened market information services guide local farmers to produce products that have good market perspectives and high added value, and it also promotes the formation and development of leading agricultural industries. In November 2002, for example, Wuhu county officials learned from the Internet that Shanghai would start to implement a programme known as "Forest in city". The plan entails that by 2020 the forest coverage of Shanghai will increase from 10.4 percent at present to more than 30 percent and areas for tree planting will cover 2 300 sq km. To achieve this, more than 60 percent of trees will be procured from other provinces. Upon reading this news, Wuhu county officials promptly organized a team to visit Shanghai, and they helped the tree nursery companies and large farmer households engaged in tree nurseries in their county to forge contacts with the Shanghai Municipality Landscaping Company. The county government also made a decision that tree nursery and floriculture should be nurtured in their area as a leading industry for development. It is planned that the acreage of tree and flower nurseries in the county will reach more than 6 700 ha in 2006.