NEU PETERSHAIN, EAST GERMANY — IN a dilapidated shed near the hamlet of Neu Petershain, mechanics tinker idly on a rust-pocked tractor, its cab and chassis battered by more than a decade of use. Outside, a field planted with rye is beginning to sprout.
``We can't decide whether to fertilize it or not,'' says Peter Klein, a field worker at the sprawling farm collective southwest of Cottbus. ``No one knows if we'll ever be able to sell the crop.''
Mr. Klein and his co-workers are worried that their farm collective, long subsidized by the ousted Communist government, won't be able to compete when East Germany's collapsing socialist economy is merged with West Germany's powerful free market on July 2.
Their concerns are shared by tens of thousands of farmers across the country who have staged frequent street protests demanding protection from a flood of agricultural products from Western Europe.
The influx has so hurt the domestic agricultural market that East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maizi`ere appealed to East Germans in a televised address to ``buy East German.''
``Our products aren't any worse than those in the West,'' Mr. de Maizi`ere said. ``They just don't look as pretty.''
East German consumers were swayed little by de Maizi`ere's entreaties. Since the opening of the frontier last November, East Germans have been abandoning domestic produce in droves in favor of the more attractively packaged West German goods, which are sometimes cheaper because of European Community (EC) subsidies.
But even higher price tags have not daunted sales. East German farm products are often slightly inferior when judged by more exacting Western standards and tastes, but they are hardly meager fare.
East German consumer preference for Western goods has resulted in huge surpluses of domestic pork, milk products, vegetables, and grain. Until recently, wholesalers responded to the demand for Western goods by simply boycotting many domestic products, leaving the East German produce to rot in storage or in the fields.
Kurt Fritz, who manages the Edwin Hoernle vegetable and floriculture collective on the outskirts of East Berlin, says he has been forced to lay off a dozen workers because of increased competition from the West.
``We've lost our market here. The Dutch and West Germans have better [flower] products and in some cases can even sell them cheaper than we can.''
Mr. Fritz says the collective's produce line - cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and carrots - is also in jeopardy.
Eberhard M"ussigbroth, who heads a large farm collective in Mittenwalde south of Berlin, has similar worries.
``We are sitting in our own salad here, while the West German and Dutch lettuce is being bought up for double the price.''
Agriculture experts in East Berlin and Bonn say the current hardships in the industry may be mild compared with the upheaval German monetary union could cause.
East German Agriculture Minister Peter Pollack has predicted that as many as half of the 800,000 workers employed in the industry may lose their jobs in the next five years. His ministry bases the figure on studies that indicate that most farm collectives employ twice the number of workers needed for production. Nearly 20 percent of the current 4,500 agricultural enterprises are unlikely to survive entry into a free market system, Mr. Pollack says. Fifty percent would likely be able to compete relatively quickly with government help, he adds, and perhaps another 30 percent of the collectives may manage to survive the transition over the long term.
The road to a competitive market won't be easy for East Germany's farm collectives, which are vast in size compared with their West German counterparts. Production per acre is substantially lower than in West Germany. The collectives, melded together by successive waves of land reform, also have outdated machinery and a inefficient distribution system, a relic of the now-discredited centrally planned economy.
The East German farmers say they need a five-to-10-year transition phase of import protection to survive.
They also want more access to EC markets during East Germany's phased-in acceptance into the community.
Most experts say the pace of the East German agricultural reforms will have to be quicker and that a bumpy ride is unavoidable in the short term. But officials in East Berlin already admit that licensing regulations put into place earlier this month to control the volume of Western imports came too late and are too easy to circumvent. To help correct the problem, the agriculture ministers of both countries have agreed to impose quotas on West German farm imports beginning June 1. Phased import controls for other products are also under discussion.
In another effort to help farmers, the East German government last week said additional import controls and duties would be needed after July 1 to protect the domestic market.
The government also slashed prices for meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, and canned fruit in an attempt to make East German goods more attractive to consumers. It was the second such move in three days.
Rosamarie Willke, a spokeswoman for the federal Agriculture Ministry in Bonn, says the fact that East German farms were turned into large collectives may ultimately turn out to be an advantage. ``If they are pared down a bit and run properly, these larger collectives could be more cost effective than smaller farms.''
Director M"ussigbroth in Mittenwalde says he's optimistic, despite his initial bout with Western competition.
``If we can just get rid of the command-economy legacy, then we can turn the tables. We'll be the race horse in agriculture and West Germany will be the donkey,'' he said.