Only eight years ago, Poland was a net exporter of food.Today it spends hundreds of millions of dollars worth of desperately needed hard currency on food imports from the West.
But Poland could again become a net food exporter, Polish and Western experts say -- provided it reverses the agricultural policies largely responsible for the present farming crisis.
At present, the way in which the new government is trying to change those policies is getting it into fresh conflict with a large block of the country's 3 million private farmers.
More than a half-million private peasants are behind the movement to form a "Rural Solidarity," the farmers' equivalent of the massive, independent union movement established in industry.
Appeal is pending on the court rejection of their registration plea Oct. 29 on the ground that peasant farmers are self-employed land- owners and that the classic purpose, therefore, of labor relations between employers and employees cannot apply.
The peasant organizers are invoking international labor conventions, which Poland has signed, which rule that self-employment does not preclude union organization or membership.
Meantime, just as with the industrial Solidarity, the Communist leaders scent political trouble in a farmers' union that would be "independent." Since World War II, food shortages have sparked four major crises and forced three changes of the top communist leadership. But even after the upheavals of 1956 and 1970, the country will produced more food than its people and livestock needed.
The farm scene has deteriorated drastically since then, however. In 1979, the government spent well over $1 billion on grain and fodded imports. And for several years Poland has spent much more hard currency buying food in the West than it earned from its own food exports.
These are some of the hard facts that are focusing attention in the present crisis more on agricultural failings than on any of the country's many other critical economic shortcomings.
They explain why, embattled with the worst and potentially the most politically dangerous crisis of all, the new leadership is putting farm policy in the forefront of its promised economic reforms.
It has decided above all to plow more money into the 75 percent of the arable land plowed by the private farm sector. Stanislaw Kania, who took over the party leadership in September, has just announced that investments in aid to individual peasant farming will be raised by 80 percent in the coming farm year.
On figures alone, the private farmers have an unanswerable case.
The pampered, heavily overmanned state farms till only 25 percent of the land , yet absorb nearly 70 percent of all investment. They gulp up between two and three times more fertilizer and high protein fodder than the private famrs. Yet the latter produce nearly three-quarters of the nation's food.
The regime already has improved farm prices. It has promised the private sector all the future increased production of fertilizers and big investment in the small tractors and other equipment suited to their farms, among which only 400,000 (out of 3 million) are more than 25 acres.
"Family farms are the majority," said the leading Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy. "They produce most and so they must be given the most help."
But Polish peasants, like many farmers elsewhere, are mistrustful of government.
Many are opposed to the official plan to make small government-sponsored freehold farms the channel for the increased investments and inputs. These holdings are seen as having failed to stand up to local party bureaucrats over the issue of enlarging family farms, which the experts say is essential if Poland is to overcome its food crisis. Nor did they protest prices that rendered 2 million of the smallest holdings unprofitable.