Warsaw — When a friend about to visit Western Europe asked farmer Jan K. what gift he might bring him, Jan's reply was instant. ''A pair of rubber farm boots,'' he said.
Ever since World War II, agriculture has been the nub of Poland's economic problems. A persistent lack of basic tools, despite two years of official promises of ''reform,'' explains why private farmers have shrugged off the latest government efforts to get them to produce more.
''Simple things like rubber boots, for example, to say nothing of suitable tractors and smaller tools, . . . you just cannot find them,'' Jan says. With 50 acres he is, by Polish standards, a farmer of some substance.
The quasi-unions provided for in a farm law that was passed in October leave the average peasant just as unmoved.
The new legislation provides, not for a Solidarity-style farmers' union, but an organization that will bring existing farmers' and rural housewives' circles into a broader-based association that caters to general social and occupational interests in the countryside.
Younger, more modern landowners like Jan see possibilities for pressing individual farmers' interests through this new law. But most farmers are having nothing to do with it.
''They tell you,'' says Jan, ''that Rural Solidarity having been first suspended and now finally excluded (like industrial Solidarity by the new labor union law), they want just to be on their own.''
The new formula meets the communist regime's fixed ideological anxiety - manifest in its foot-dragging over Rural Solidarity in 1980 - about the development of anything like a traditional peasant party in the countryside, where its own influence is limited.
The agricultural law does guarantee the private farmers security of tenure and inheritance as well as a permanent place in the socioeconomic system.
It pledges the autonomy and self-management of the existing circles and of associations of farmers who specialize in livestock or grow crops that have been designated essential.
''But the farmers are skeptical,'' says Jan. ''You cannot tell them that, as individuals holding 80 percent of the land, they are the real key to the country's economic recovery and that making the new law work can be turned to their own advantage at the same time.
''To most of them it is still another piece of paper.''
The traditional conservatism of Polish farming has been a bugbear of the economy ever since the first post-World War II efforts at land reform and the decollectivization of the mid-'50s. Successive administrations have had to concede the principle of free, private farming, with all its fragmentation and backwardness, in the hope that with time more of the land would pass into younger hands and more economic units.
At present, 600,000 private holdings account for a million hectares (2 1/2 million acres) of mostly good arable land - a meager, inefficient average of some four acres apiece.
Thirty percent of all farms range from a half hectare to two and produce only for family need. The owners of many of these plots have jobs off the land. They raise and fatten two pigs for themselves. Efforts to induce them to raise three and sell the third to the state meat buyers have scant effect so far.
The government claims the peasants are a lot better off than six months ago and that much of an estimated zloty equivalent of some $17 billion in Polish private savings is not in bank accounts but under the mattresses in peasant farmhouses.
But, Jan says, if farmers have more money, it is because they are less interested in the household gadgets the urban population demands - which are in very short supply anyway - than in the basic tools of their trade.
Subsidies that have kept food prices low are being removed and prices raised for the producers' benefit. Supposedly this will provide more tractors and small machinery, fertilizer (still available only at 150 kilograms a hectare instead of the scientific minimal requirement of 240) as incentive to more production and better productivity.
''But until these show up,'' Jan says, ''the farmers will go on keeping that cash under the bed. They are interested only in spending it on the things they need for their own way of life.''
Meantime, the outlook for townsfolk is as gloomy as at any other time during the past two years. Trybuna Ludu, the Communist Party newspaper, said Nov. 6 that the current adequate supplies in shops and ''on our tables'' reflect neither the true situation nor the dismal prospect for higher animal stocks.
Almost one-third of the per capita meat ration of 2 1/2 kilograms now is bone. Poultry farming has been phased out and hundreds of chicken farms are empty.
''The lack of broilers and the [necessity to accept] a bony piece of beef is only the start of the meat crisis,'' the party newspaper said. The numbers of pig-fattening farms in both the state and the private sectors have fallen seriously. The decline in beef production is even more dramatic.
The paper spoke of a ''worrying '' proportion of cows being sold for slaughter and admitted the peasant farmers' ''mood of frustration'' is the major reason for it.