Life in rural Poland. Small-farm owners such as the Jankowskis remain firmly committed to their relatively independent way of life, despite low government crop prices and past attempts to herd Polish agriculture into collectives.

ON the great Polish plain some 60 miles south of Warsaw, traffic slows to an age-old rhythm behind hay-filled, horse-drawn wooden carts. Soon after the turnoff to Deba, the asphalt disappears. Beyond the village church, the dirt road narrows into an alleyway. Pigs, chickens, and cows begin to shriek. A last left turn through the gate marked ``Jankowski'' and you find Henryk, Zofia, and their three daughters waiting in the courtyard to greet their visitors with a friendly smile.

Like Poland's 3.5 million other small-farm owners, the Jankowskis live rooted to the land and its eternal values: work, family, and God. Four decades of communist rule have failed to wean them away from these roots.

Zofia's grandfather built the three-room farmhouse and barn. Zofia was was born here, Henryk six miles down the road. Eleven years ago, they were married and moved in with their in-laws. At age 33, Henryk smiles when talk turns to his pretty 29-year-old wife and his three young daughters, Dorota, 10, Magdalena, 9, and Anna, 6.

Life is hard. Every morning at 5 o'clock, Henryk and Zofia rise to feed their 10 pigs and put their three cows to pasture. Next comes breakfast of tea and sandwiches of sausage, cucumber, and tomato. Then it's to the greenhouse, where Henryk raises mushrooms, beets, and paprika. In the fields, he grows rye, oats, and wheat. Except for a break for lunch, work in these summer months continues until at least 7 p.m.

For the most part, the family is self-sufficient. Zofia says she buys some clothes in the nearest large city, Radom, and some sugar, butter, and bread in the village shop. ``They always are short of things,'' she complains.

Still, the Jankowskis say they live better than city dwellers. Their house doesn't have running water or a bathroom. But they do have a house. Young married couples in Warsaw or other big cities must wait up to 20 years before receiving their own apartment. The farmers also eat well despite Poland's strict meat rationing. Since the Jankowskis have their home-produced meat, they eat as many pork chops, their favorite dish, as they want. Zofia says the family enjoys meat every day of the week except Friday.

On Friday, observant Roman Catholics refrain from meat. The Jankowskis and their fellow farmers are believers. While Henryk says that only two of Deba's farmers are members of the Communist Party, he adds that all attend church on Sunday. Like the others, the Jankowskis walk the mile and a half to the local parish.

This rural rhythm has defied change. After World War II, the communists began collectivizing Polish agriculture. But by 1955, no more than 9.2 percent of Poland's arable land had been transferred to the state farms. After the 1956 uprising, the government realized that to impose collectivization would involve something little short of an armed invasion. Instead, it grudgingly accepted private farmers such as the Jankowskis.

The huge peasant private sector makes Poland unique among Soviet-bloc countries, but agriculture has suffered. A traditional food exporter, Poland was forced from 1976 to 1981 to import 40 million tons of costly feed grain, mainly from the United States.

Although the last few harvests have once again produced surpluses thanks to good weather, collective farms in smaller Hungary outperform their Polish counterparts, exporting almost a billion dollars of food every year.

Deba's patchwork-quilt landscape of tiny, fragmented fields was created by the communists when they redistributed 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of land after the war. Today, Polish farms remain too small to be economic. Mr. Jankowski owns a mere six hectares.

Government policy made an even greater difference. Hungarian authorities paid farmers good prices for their produce, but their Polish counterparts kept prices low. Jankowski complains bitterly that his prices remain ``40 percent too low to make a decent profit.''

As the situation deteriorated during the 1970s, the countryside sank into sullen passive resistance. Farmers became reluctant to plant crops or breed livestock. When the independent trade union Solidarity was born in 1981, the farmers soon formed their own union, Rural Solidarity. Jankowski and two-thirds of Deba's 65 other farmers became members of the new union.

The experience ended in disillusionment. Jankowksi says that the union did ``nothing good for me.'' It failed to get the government to raise prices. A strike at the nearby canning factory increased his hardship. ``I couldn't sell my mushrooms,'' he laments. When martial law was declared and the union banned, he offered no opposition. Today, he depends on no one outside his family.

For the foreseeable future, life in Deba promises to continue at a horse-drawn pace. Jankowski talks about installing a bathroom in the house. He even suggests putting a swimming pool in the courtyard. But those projects remain dreams. Reality remains much more difficult.

``My favorite leisure activity?,'' he asks rhetorically. ``Well, I have to work. Then what I really like to do is sleep.''

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