Poland's small farms stunt EU aspirations

Policy changes next year would put more than a million farmers out of business.

Joanna Wojcik is up before dawn, milking cows, grinding flour and making bread. Then she wields a scythe in her family's tiny wheat field or turns the soil with a horse-drawn plow.

But Mrs. Wojcik's way of life may soon be consigned to the past. Smallholders are running up against the big-is-beautiful agricultural policies of the European Union, which Poland hopes to join by 2004.

EU officials say Polish farms like the Wojcik's are inefficient, unsanitary, and perpetuate poverty. EU agricultural policy requires that Poland modernize and restructure its farming sector over the next eight months. That means instituting regulations that would keep the Wojciks from selling their produce and push more than a million farmers off their land. But most Polish farmers are saying no, fearful that they will end up as an even poorer class of urban unemployed.

"The communists tried to force us off of our land in the 1950s and they failed," Mrs. Wojcik says, her face breaking into a crinkly smile. "We are staying. This is the only life we know and it suits us fine. Who are those politicians to say our farm is too poor?"

Of Poland's 2 million farms, 1.6 million are tiny family plots. The average farmer here in southern Poland owns just 10 acres but most have snug homes, a car, and a few other luxuries.

The wheat from the Wojciks' 10 acres sells for 5 cents a pound, when it sells at all. They sell 5 gallons of milk every other day and make just $4.

In its annual report on candidate states issued last month, the EU ranked the great number of small inefficient farms in Poland among the country's most serious barriers to accession. Agriculture accounts for 25 percent of employment in Poland, as opposed to 4 percent in the EU.

The European Commission maintains that Polish farmers will not be eligible for the same EU subsidies as old members, yet must still comply with standards designed for larger and more modern farms, leaving many Poles wondering if joining the EU is worth the trouble.

Since 1996, preliminary restructuring and the implementation of EU standards have contributed to a drop in farm incomes of more than 30 percent in Poland, a problem compounded by a massive influx of subsidized, factory-farm products from Western Europe to Polish markets.

Not everyone believes Poland should follow EU policy. In fact, several EU members are proposing reforms to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which sup-port a model that is closer to Polish agriculture than to current

western practices. But a reappraisal will begin in 2006 at the earliest, when EU nations meet to discuss the CAP budget. That might be too late to save Poland's small farms, rural activities say.

Prominent British activist and sometime adviser to the British government Sir Julian Rose spoke to the Polish Parliament last spring begging the Polish government not to abide by dated EU regulations.

According to Mr. Rose, the same policies devastated his country, putting 1.2 million British farmers out of business and cutting remaining farm incomes by 70 percent. The results, he says, were pollution, loss of biodiversity, stock epidemics, unhealthy food, and shattered communities.

"I am in Poland to urge you to fight for the future of your beautiful diverse, small-scale farms," he said. "Say no to the intensive farming ethic that has destroyed my country."

But many Polish economists insist that EU membership and restructuring will be beneficial to Poland as a whole. "We absolutely must become an EU member as soon as possible," says Josef Wegrzyn, director of the Euro Info Center at the Cracow Chamber of Commerce. "Action should be taken that will leave only a few high efficiency farms. There is no other option for us." As for resulting unemployment, Wegrzyn shakes his head and says, "That will be a big problem."

The Wojciks' neighbor, Jadwiga Lopata, thinks she has a solution for rural Poland. Ms. Lopata grew up in picturesque southern Poland and went off to study math and computer programming at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. But, disenchanted with city life, she returned to farming several years ago to organize organic farms and experiment with ecological technologies. Her cooperative now holds 130 farms, which have each seen their incomes increase by 30 to 50 percent.

"Most Polish farmers are organic farmers by default," says Ms. Lopata, "but they don't have certification. They can't sell their crops or their processed foods, like cheeses or preserves, because of new regulations and competition from western cheap imports."

With the market niche for organic food across Europe growing at 25 percent per year, Lopata hopes that Poland will create a profitable, yet ecologically and socially benign, system of farming.

Szczepan Master, one of Lopata's supporters, says his 15-acre farm is proof that her theory works in practice. Mr. Master says he is selling 15 percent more produce at higher prices since his crops were certified organic earlier this year.

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