Farmers are Farmers, in Poland or Peoria

Czech Republic

The small, family farm is just as much in doubt here in Eastern Europe as it is in America. Financial, rather than agricultural interests are taking over and the decision making process is ever more in the hands of the bean-counters rather than the bean-growers. Soon-to-be European Union members, Poland, with a huge (24%) agricultural job base and the Czech Republic (somewhat less at 8%) are being coerced into getting rid of the small family landholding as a ticket to membership. As John Steinbeck pointed out nearly sixty-five years ago in The Grapes of Wrath, when the man who walks his land is replaced by absentee ownership, land becomes merely a commodity to be used and abused rather than husbanded.

Poland is a particularly egregious example. The EU's Common Agriculture Policy will displace over a million Polish farmers and it's not an arguable issue, it's a requirement of entry. Thus, in Poland as in Peoria, small family farms will become more and more a thing of the past and choice will be the victim -- consumer choice as well as choice of occupation.

The typical Polish landholding is 12 to 15 acres and encompasses a life up before the sun, milking cows, tending sheep or goats, grinding the flour from wheat cut with a hand scythe and baking the day's bread. Churning butter, making cheese. A hard life, but a preferred life for tens of thousands of families. Now that the communist communal farms have disbanded and just at a time when the land is showing evidence of improvement after those environmentally thoughtless decades, the ministers in Brussels will have their say. Ministers don't drive tractors or swing scythes in the sun. Ministers answer to business interests and the world's bean counters.

I have driven down from the Slovak High Tatras (the mountains that separate Slovakia from Poland) and been charmed beyond all expectation. Farm wagons along small roads pulled by gleaming draft horses, their tails braided with ribbon, the owner sitting proudly with the reins, a feathered green Tyrolean hat cocked at an angle. These are not subsidy farmers. They are as successful as our Pennsylvania Amish, preserving their hedgerows and limiting the use of chemical fertilizers and weed killers. Being charmed is nice, but these farms are prosperous in their own small right, preserving a way of life and a cultural heritage that needs no interference from Brussels. Yet the ministers insist that small farms are inefficient, unsanitary and perpetuate poverty and the stark reality is of bean-counter farming in an immediate future. Ministers are good at insisting -- insistence from the friendly folks who brought you mad cow disease.

In the six years since implementation of EU regulations in Poland has begun, farm income has dropped more than 30% and yet, once Poland joins, they will be ineligible for standard European subsidies. How's that for a neat trick? Sixty years ago, Germany eyed Poland as an agricultural acquisition and sent in the tanks. Today it seems 'agribusiness' has the same goal in mind, an invasion of a different kind, but an invasion all the same.

Enter Sir Julian Rose, British rural advocate, who addressed the Polish parliament a year ago, urging Poland to resist the policies that had devastated English agriculture. Sir Julian laments the EU policies in Britain that backed large scale farming and stripped over a million English farmers of their land and cut remaining farm incomes by 70%. The result was a lot of broke farmers, pollution, reduced bio-diversity, animal epidemics (Mad Cow) and destroyed farming communities. "This policy is a failure," he announced to the parliament. "I am in Poland to urge you to fight for the future of your beautiful, diverse, small-scale farms. Say no to the intensive farming ethic that has destroyed my country."

Whether Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and their near neighbors will be able to survive agriculturally is very much in question. They have precious little power in protecting their agricultural integrity against the onslaught of the European Union. Small landholdings are coming apart all over the world and, with them, our choices as consumers. Perhaps the organic movement holds some hope. Organic farming is the future of small farms and, if they are able to aggregate their distribution process, there may yet be a way to maintain the integrity of the family farm.

Now, enter Jadwiga Lopata, who believes in a combination of eco-tourism and organic farming as a viable way to keep Polish families together in agriculture. Lopata left her family farm in southern Poland to study computer programming in Krakow.

Learning technology, politics and economics, she came back to see her family farm falling apart and decided to do something about it, leaving the stress of the city in the bargain. She realized she had knowledge that farmers needed and began an experimental garden, growing plants that produced their own fertilizers, a greenhouse with solar panels and a bacterial waste system. Helping families become Certified Organic Farmers, a market that grows at 25% a year in Poland, she sees salvation in diversity. She keeps a list of farmers who diversify, accommodating eco-tourists, showing them how organic crops are grown and taking them mushroom hunting in season, providing rides in horse drawn carts and a share in the farm chores, all providing additional income. Far from offering a mere tourist stop, Lopata sees these efforts as promoting the use and understanding of organic farm products. Member farms show a healthy 30-50% increase in net earnings.

But the great danger is that organic farms will come too late with too little under the pressure of the EU timetable less than nine months away. In the meantime the young, without whom farming cannot survive, will have moved to the cities, been ravaged by urban unemployment and live the frustrated lives of the chronically unemployed, never to come back to that quiet country heritage of draft horses and jaunty caps. Ms. Lopata, always the optimist, laughs as she says, "We are lucky. We still have an unspoiled countryside and because the communists were not strong enough in the collectives, we still have skilled people on the land. If you look at the social and environmental problems in the rest of Europe and the US, you will see that we are the ones who are truly rich."

When you drive down from the High Tatras, you begin to believe it.

Jim Freeman is author of Evoke (see www.praguewriter.com/evoke.htm), a futurist political novel for those who hate politics and can't stand science fiction.

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