The following main constraints were noted after analysis of information supply and demand in the surveyed areas:
· Farmers' capacity to use information needs improvement
At present, young rural labourers usually work in enterprises in local areas or work in cities. People engaged in agricultural production are those who are aged and women who have a low educational level. The ratio of farmers with a high school education in Lanxi was rather high, while in the other counties and district about 70 percent of the farmers had less than a middle school education (Table 1). Farmers have poor awareness of what is available and what they need and a poor capacity to accept information and technological services, particularly on issues of recent innovations and improvements in agricultural production. Many farmers talk about production for the sake of production but lack an understanding about the roles of information within the market-based economy, including the need to use/understand market demand, price data, etc. Some even feel helpless. Their capacity to acquire and exchange information is rather low.
· Low farm income level limits access to information tools
In general, farmers in China are relatively poor. The average per capita net income of farmers in the country in 2002 was US$299. Among the surveyed areas, the highest per capita average net income was US$459 in Lanxi city while the lowest was US$215 in Shucheng county. However, to buy a computer (PIII) costs around US$360-$480, which is about 1.5 times the annual income of a farmer. In addition, it will cost a farmer US$170 per year if he/she uses a telephone line to surf the Internet, calculating at one hour per day. Therefore, compared with the traditional information dissemination media, the cost of obtaining information from the Internet is far too high. Because farmers' income is somewhat moderate, naturally their investment in communications and information facilities is low. Among several categories of information reception tools, the ratio of farmer households with a television set accounted for 80 percent of the total number of farmer households in all six counties and district. The popularity rate of the telephone is less than 50 percent. Computers are even less prevalent among farmers. Lack of equipment restricts farmers from fully using the existing information service resources.
· Low organization level of farmers and small-holder farmers lowers the efficiency of information services
Farmers in the surveyed areas said that it was relatively easier now to acquire information than in the past. However, when the farmers are not organized or benefiting from a collective understanding of the market, which is the more common situation, their production is not focused on something that might be in demand and/or have competitive advantage. With so many small-holders all doing their own (different) thing, there is no focused demand for information. Under such circumstances, information service workers are overwhelmed handling a large number of simple and repeated questions. As a result, the investment in agricultural information service is quite high and the impact of information use is very low. In areas where farmers are not well organized into groups, collectives or specialty production associations, the ripple effects generated by leading enterprises, large farmer households in crop farming and animal raising and specialized associations becomes less significant than it could be.
· Lack of proper human resources in information services in rural areas
Because there is a shortage of talent in agricultural information service, human resource development of rural information services needs to be further strengthened. The first issue are the numbers: the ratio of information service workers to rural labourers, the users of service, is basically one to several thousands. In Litong district, the ratio is 1 to 10 000 - a severe shortage of people to sufficiently meet the information demand. Second, along with the furthering of agricultural product diversification, crop varieties and animal breeds used in rural areas are increasing day by day, while the requirements for agricultural technology are much diversified. On the other hand, the knowledge of the existing agrotechnological workers is outdated, making it difficult for them to suit the requirements of new and complex situations. Third, information service workers in rural areas not only need to be familiar with agricultural technology but need to master computer operation and applications of the network, the laws of market economy and be good at collecting, processing and publishing market information. At present, proper human resources are very scarce, especially in townships and villages. Since most of the information service workers at this level are part time, it is very difficult to ensure that they will be dedicated to the job.
· Lack of content and a need for improvement in the quality of information available
There is generally a wealth of information available to respond to technological problems and queries and it is easy to provide a reply. This type of information can be obtained directly from newspapers, periodicals, the Internet or from an expert. The shortage of content, however, is reflected in the category of market information. Market issues are rather complex and it is difficult to collect comprehensive and accurate information. Furthermore, the collected information needs to be processed and analysed, which requires higher capabilities for the information service workers. As Zhang Xuejun of Fuyu county, Jilin province, explained, "I want to know the distribution of green beans in China, what is the national total acreage; what are varieties and whether there has been a disaster for green bean production in the country." It is very difficult for the county information centre to collect detailed information for a particular crop, even green beans. While some analysis exists on the past and present market situations, there is little predicting information for future market trends. It is therefore very difficult to guide farmers in making their production decisions.
In addition to the lack of information content, there also exists the problem of low-quality, outdated, inaccurate or incomplete information. Because farmers lack the ability to discern between "good" and "bad" information due to low education or inexperience, incidence of cheating and losses caused to farmers occurs from time to time. Li Shuhai, a farmer in Longhe township, Anhui province, picked up from reports in science and technology publications and from an agricultural programme of CCTV-7 that raising scorpions can be prosperous. So he invested and learned to raise the spiders. However, he could not sell his product and the dealer of the seed scorpion who promised to purchase Mr Li's spiders at a high price failed to keep his pledge. Another farmer in Meiling village in the same township also engaged in raising scorpions; he produced successfully a large number of them but he also could not market them, taking a loss of several hundred dollars. Farmers say that the information provided through the service station or reported by the media is often outdated.
· Uneven information services capacity at the grassroots level
At present, the development of the information service in rural areas is uneven. The problem of incomplete information service system and inadequate network extension is quite significant in some areas. In the surveys for this report, 68.9 percent of farmers in Litong, 64.7 percent in Lanxi and 39 percent in Fuyu said that it is not easy to get the information they need. During discussions, farmers reported that the established county or city information centres are all located in the city or in the county proper, usually more than 10 km, or farther, away from rural areas. It is not convenient for farmers to go to the town only for a consultation. The use of telephone and computers to resolve problems from a distance is rather limited. Information provided through television, radio, newspapers and periodicals is basically the service category from point to area without accurate targeting and producing unfocused or unspecific effects. Therefore, it is necessary to improve the capacity of the information service organization network and expand coverage. In areas where township and village information service agencies have been established, there is a clear need to further improve service quality.
· Lack of funds
It has been reflected in the surveyed areas that the constraints of funds is a significant problem in the development of an information service system. Information service must rely on modern communication means and equipment, but due to the shortage of funds stations are not adequately equipped with advanced facilities. The means of information collection and processing are rather poor and information service remains at a low level. The problem of funding shortage is even more common in the development of township information service stations. For instance, even though Nvbu township in Lanxi city has set up an information service station, it cannot afford to buy a computer and other necessary hardware; it is therefore difficult for the station to collect and publish information. Workers at the stations that have equipment also complained during the research for this report that it is outdated with low operation speed, which affects the efficiency of their work. The current funds available are only sufficient enough to maintain the daily operation; there is no funding for development. Information service station workers in both Fuyu county and Litong district feel great pressure in fund raising, and the heads of the stations have to go out to solicit support. Without future funding secured, it is not an easy job to have the information service system established as it stands at present.