Polish farms suffer neglect from officials

Golden lines of grain flow across sunlit dales to the Vistula River, a fertile region in southeast Poland. The harvest looks good this year for the few Polish farmers with large land holdings. But for the average Polish farmer, the picture is anything but golden.

Amazingly, small farmers throughout the country recently complained of an acute shortage of one essential for harvesting:


(A ship later arrived in Poland with 3,000 tons of string, the daily Zycie Warszawy reported.)

Absurd as it may be, this recent shortage of string for Polish farmers is just another reflection of government policies that through the 1970s favored large state farms at the expense of private peasants who produce up to 75 percent of the nation's food.

Those policies are slowly changing, perhaps too slowly for the economic well-being and political peace within Poland. Of some 2.9 million private farmers, 1.7 million have 12 acres or fewer, and of those, half have under five acres. In contrast, state farms average 8,100 acres and have in the last decade received first deliveries of farm equipment - from mechanized equipment to hand tools like pitchforks, hammers, and hoes.

Tadeusz P. is one of those poor farmers with the kind of subsistence holding that accounts for more than half of Poland's agricultural land.

He wears an old shirt with big rips, trousers cobbled with patches, and no socks under his oversized, clumsy shoes. He has 12 acres of land (split up in four widely scattered plots), a 30-year-old harrow, and one horse, which looks better cared for than he does.

''We cannot even get decent working clothes,'' he said. He sounded resigned rather than bitter.

Farmers like Tadeusz P. don't have any capital. He works his land alone. He has three children. The eldest, a daughter of 10, looks after his two cows. The family has no proper house, and they cannot afford to build one. They live in no more than a barn. They have a 20-year-old, black-and-white television.

In July 1981, a new policy initiated at the so-called ''renewal'' congress of the Communist Party would guarantee that agriculture receive not less than 30 percent of overall national investment. That figure has yet to be met. Last year it was 23.7 percent.

Production of farm tools has increased, with no fewer than 400 factories turned over to manufacturing agriculture equipment with emphasis on supplying the small landholder. But there still seems to be a long way to go before the modest needs of a million farmers like Tadeusz begin to be met.

A recent press report described a commune of relatively substantial farms in the district of Ciechanow, where only 140 of 500 requests for machinery were met in the last 18 months. The ''little men'' fare less well. In the same district, only 12,000 of some 30,000 requests for tractors could be met.

Even when a farmer is fortunate enough to get a tractor or the building material he needs, said the Christian Social Association paper Tygodnik Polski, his troubles are by no means over. Even buckets, chains, nails, and farm boots were hard to come by. Often, the paper said, a farmer wastes his time in a queue when he should be out in his fields.

''Getting a pair of rubber boots,'' said Tadeusz and his friends, ''is a miracle.''

Poland had a mediocre harvest this year - between 20 and 21 million tons of grain, down from 21.2 million tons in 1982. But even a good harvest would not have solved the problems plaguing Polish farmers. Sanctions by Western nations, for example, which cut imports of essential feedstuffs, are one of the main factors behind the steady decline in the country's cattle and pig populations.

There are other factors, however, implicit in the whole attitude toward farming since World War II and the abandonment in the 1950s (under peasant refusal to cooperate) of Soviet-bloc-style collectivization.

Even after the '50s, farming's potential was never realized because priority was given to industrialization. There has always been a lack of harvesting machines, storage facilities, and other modern equipment.

A recent United States expert report based on Polish sources estimated that during the successive phases of production, storing, and processing, nearly 4 million tons of grain are lost annually.

The report made these further points:

* Due to lack of machinery, 30 percent of spring grains are sown at less than optimal times.

* As much as 40 percent of the potato crop - the most important in Poland - is lost because of inadequate storage.

* Three million liters of milk and 50,000 metric tons of meat are lost annually because there is not enough fodder and other feed for the animals.

The program the government started in 1981 has its merits. But there are questions as to whether it can ever work to the benefit of the 2 million poor farmers who have no more than a dozen acres, often of inferior soil.

Stronger guarantees of land ownership and the right to inherit land have just been written into the Constitution. But that did not seem to mean much to Tadeusz and other such small farmers.

Can the various aids reach them in time and their farms ever become economic units, especially with the average age of owners already into the 60s and their sons and daughters steadily drifting away to the towns? Many people doubt it.

It is said that 62 percent of the farm equipment produced last year went to private farms, compared with 41 percent in 1981. But obviously it was the bigger private farms that received most of it.

In the long term, the government apparently wants to see those sorry subsistence units absorbed and agriculture as a whole reduced to some 500,000 productive farms.

Although that plan has something to be said for it, to some Poles it seems a shrewd ploy to secure some kind of ''collectivization'' after all. The creation of 500,000 potentially viable farms should make for some improvement. But they would still be limited to the 125 acres allowed under present law.

This consolidation would still make no distinction between the dedicated, efficient farmer and the less conscientious one. And that has always been the incentive Polish agriculture has needed most of all.

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