When local officials on the mainland proudly boast about their 'big agricultural county', it's usually a nice way of saying 'fiscally small county'.
Jianli county in Hubei province is a prime example. Honoured by the Ministry of Agriculture as a 'national pacesetter in grain production', the county of about 1.46 million people is too poor to pay its share of funding for policies introduced by the central government in recent years to support agriculture and farmers.
In addition to being funded by central and provincial government grants, these policies, from medical care to seed subsidies, require different percentages of supporting funding from local governments. But that amount is triple the 313 million yuan (HK$376.7 million) annual revenue of Jianli, according to Zhang Zhonglin, chief accountant of the county's finance bureau.
This problem, together with a shortage of talent in local government departments and of young labourers in the fields, has hampered efforts to enhance modern agriculture, which China has relied on to tackle a growing challenge of remaining self-sufficient in feeding nearly 1.4 billion people.
The dozen or so projects meant to benefit farmers, including a rural medical care system, pension system, environmental protection and subsidies for buying necessary materials, would cost the county nearly 1 billion yuan, according to Zhang's calculations.
As a result, the county did not spend anywhere near the required money on people's livelihoods, he said, stressing how difficult it would be to meet this year's requirement.
With just a handful of mid-sized companies, people in the county usually either grow crops or sell farming materials and provide services. The cancellation of the centuries-old agricultural land tax in 2006 has reduced tax revenue from the crop-growing county governments but farmers have remained poor as a result of national officials keeping grain prices low, Zhang said.
In Jiaotong village in the county's Xingou township, a third of the population has left to seek better pay in cities, according to Chen Yonghao, director of the village committee. 'Most young and middle-aged people are working in cities, and the rest make a living by farming or driving a truck to transport farm produce,' he said.
Poor labour quality had also been a persistent problem for developing the agriculture industry, said Li Xingzhong, director of the county's agricultural bureau. 'Most of the people who farm in our county are either under 15 or above 50. It's harder to teach them [agricultural] knowledge and skills,' he said at a May 10 meeting of the county government's department heads.
Finding college graduates had been all but impossible, further thinning the talent pool. Wang Daoxian, director of the county's marine products bureau, said his department had not employed a single college graduate in the past 18 years. 'We lack successors in scientific research, as well as skills in this regard,' he said.
Zhao Xianguo, director of flood control and drought relief, said the last time his bureau employed a graduate was 12 years ago, and just two of the five graduates hired in 1999 were still working in the department.
Another problem, according to Li, is the county's outdated water infrastructure. Lying beside the nation's longest river, the Yangtze, Jianli is prone to floods in the summer when the river's water level reaches its peak. Most of the ditches and dykes built to combat flooding were built during the 1970s, he said. With their incomes already low, farmers were not willing to upgrade utilities.
Zhao said that, 'since most of the government's efforts on water are focused on improving drainage in this province', which is dotted with lakes and rivers, the county was unprepared for a recent drought that plagued areas in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze.
That led to finger-pointing at officials, accusing them of poor money management. Along the fields across from Jiaotong farmer Zhu Jianhua's house, there is a long cement drainage pipe that he calls a 'face project' by the government. 'I get angry whenever I see this pipe,' Zhu said. 'It's never been used. Why not spend money dredging the regular ditches - they're much more useful.'
Rain finally came earlier last month, but village director Chen said the harvest of early-season and mid-season rice, whose seedlings are transplanted in late April and late May, had been affected by the months-long drought. 'Output could be reduced by 30 to 40 per cent, I'm afraid,' he said.
After seven consecutive years of growth in grain output, Beijing set targets for all provinces this year to increase annual production by a combined total of at least 50 million tonnes. Hubei province faces an increase of 200,000 tonnes, most of which will have to come from Jianli.
But last year, the annual grain output in Jianli rose by just 2,600 tonnes, and the total output was around 1.3 million tonnes, according to the local government's 2010 economic and social development report, which noted that rice output was hit hard last summer by serious floods.
So the question is: how are they going to come up with so much more grain in a harvest year marred by a record drought to go along with flooding?
The stability of the region, according to accountant Zhang, is in jeopardy 'if we continue to rely solely on agriculture'.