This is a tale of the little pigs that didn't get to market. To nine Poles in 10, meat really means pork. Just now, it is an elusive item. A drop of almost 4 million in the pig population this year not only highlights the near disastrous decline in animal breeding, the Achilles' heel of Polish farming. It also means that pork, already rationed, is virtually unavailable.
Compounding that, 15 percent of all meat, it is conservatively estimated, finds a way to the black market at prices few Poles can afford.
When pork is on sale in price-controlled shops for people who have coupons - and these days that's not often - it is still too dear for families with a per-capita monthly income of 3,000 zlotys (about $32).
The monthly 21/2 kilogram (5.5 pound) ration each is entitled to is largely met with inferior quality meat. And to most Poles, this is the least bearable aspect of a frustrating food situation likely to get worse before winter is through.
More than ever before, agriculture - above all, meat production - is the essential key to bettering Poland's economic situation overall.
This year saw the biggest reduction of herds on postwar record - 650,000 fewer cows (a 5 percent drop) and 3.9 million fewer pigs (down 20 percent).
''If something is not done soon to prevent further decline,'' says the youth daily Sztandar Mlodych, ''pigs and cows will become endangered species in Poland.''
Polish townsfolk tend to blame the private farmers, who have some 75 percent of all farmland. They've ''never had it so good,'' the argument goes. They have so much money, they won't be bothered with fattening livestock for market when grain and milk pay much better, the critics say.
But according to the experts, meat prices must be increased to make the hard work of raising animals just as worthwhile. Procurement prices - that is, what state buyers pay the farmers - were increased 8 percent last July. But with costs rising faster, that is still not enough.
According to a young farmers' group, the cost of producing a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef rose from 66 zlotys (about 70 cents) to 105. But the government paid only 88 zlotys, instead of the former 57. Raising a kilo of pork costs 172 zlotys, up from 96 - but the top procurement price was only 126 zlotys.
''Profitability is what the whole thing is about,'' says Sztandar Mlodych. An American expert here concurs, and points to the need for speedy implementation of a plan under consideration which would make pig breeding attractive by raising procurement prices and providing some essential inputs, like tools or feed.
But the new prices would not take effect until July. This expert believes the government should tell the farmers right away.
''Many farmers raise few more piglets than their own needs,'' he says. ''Give them some assurance this January and they will think it worth it. Leave it until July and another six months will be lost.''
After earlier bad runs, Poland has had two reasonably good harvests. This year's grain yield of 22 million tons was a million more than in 1982. Deliveries to the state by the private farmers doubled to more than 4 million tons.
But the government seems nervous about another bad harvest in 1984, particularly since it cannot count on any early removal of the highly damaging US sanctions. And it now appears willing to consider any program to buffer the country from a bad harvest.
One is the government's plan to increase allocations to private farmers of high-nutrition feed units and coal for every pig sold to the state under contract, along with credits to stimulate sow breeding.
Another plan is the Development Aid Fund for agriculture offered by the Roman Catholic Church, based on donations from Western churches and philanthropic institutions. Politics enters the picture here, with the unprecedented spectacle of a communist-bloc state - already the only one where most of farming is not collectivized - possibly about to accept a kind of mini-Marshall Plan under religious aegis.
Work on the fund has not gone beyond the talking stage, with details and differences over how it might be administered yet to be hammered out. Church-state relations are cool just now. But there are signs that ways could be found around some of the regime's political reservations, perhaps by spring.
The sponsors foresaw the aid going to the private farmers alone. The government is holding out for some of the money to go to its own ''socialized'' sector to boost production of pesticides and other items overall.
A possible compromise would be to channel 80 percent of the aid to private farmers and 20 percent to the state sector.