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Old Ways, New Pain for Farms in Poland

By Elisabeth Rosenthal | The New York Times

STRYSZOW, Poland —Depending on your point of view, Szczepan Master is either an incorrigible Luddite or a visionary. A small farmer, proud of his pure high-quality products, he works his land the way Polish farmers have for centuries.

He keeps his livestock in a straw-floored “barn” that is part of his house, entered through a kitchen door. He slaughters his own pigs. His wife milks cows by hand. He rejects genetically modified seeds. Instead of spraying his crops, he turns his fields in winter, preferring a workhorse to a tractor, to let the frost kill off pests residing there.

Rafal Klimkiewicz for The New York Times

Helena Master at work recently on a farm in Stryszow, Poland. Old-fashioned farming is threatened by European Union rules that emphasize productivity.

Rafal Klimkiewicz for The International Herald Tribune

Szczepan Master on his Stryszow farm. “It is impossible for me to farm,” he said of Poland’s changing agricultural landscape.

While traditional farms like his could be dismissed as a nostalgic throwback, they are also increasingly seen as the future — if only they can survive.

Mr. Master’s way of farming — indeed his way of life — has been badly threatened in the two years since Poland joined the European Union, a victim of sanitary laws and mandates to encourage efficiency and competition that favor mechanized commercial farms, farmers here say.

That conflict obviously matters to Mr. Master. But it is also of broader importance, environmental groups and agriculture experts say, as worries over climate change grow and more consumers in both Europe and the United States line up for locally grown, organic produce.

For reasons social, culinary and environmental, small farms like Mr. Master’s should be promoted, or at least be protected, they say. They not only yield tastier foods but also produce few of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

In part because Poland has remained one of the last strongholds of small farming in Europe, it is also a rare bastion of biodiversity, with 40,000 pairs of nesting storks and thousands of seed varieties that exist nowhere else in the world.

But European Union laws are intended for another universe of farming, and Polish farmers say they have left them at a steep disadvantage. If they want to sell their products, European law requires farms to have concrete floors in their barns and special equipment for slaughtering. Hygiene laws prohibit milking cows by hand. As a result, the milk collection stations and tiny slaughterhouses that until a few years ago dotted the Polish countryside have all closed. Small family farming is impossible.

“We need to reward them for being ahead of the game, rather than behind it,” said Sir Julian Rose — an organic farmer from Britain — who, with his Polish partner, Jadwiga Lopata, founded the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside some years back and has been fighting the regulations.

“The E.U. has adopted the same efficiency approach to food as it has to autos and microchips,” he said. “Those who can produce the most are favored. Everything is happening the reverse of what it should be if they care about food and the environment.”

The small farmers who have rallied behind the coalition here in southern Poland have touched a deep nerve and gained broad influence.

Ms. Lopata received the prestigious Goldman Prize for protecting the environment for her quest to preserve traditional farms. Prince Charles visited her farm (by helicopter) with its solar panels and the black sheep (responsible for mowing the grass) in the yard.

All 16 states of Poland have now banned genetically modified organisms in defiance of European Union and Word Trade Organization mandates. Last month, the Polish Agriculture Ministry announced that it planned to ban their import in animal fodder, another refusal to accept European Union policy.

In Brussels, headquarters of the European Union, officials say they have no desire to undo Polish tradition. “We are not advocating the industrialization of European farming — from our side we think there is a place in Europe for all shapes and sizes of farms,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Commission Agriculture Directorate. But, he said: “There has to be some restructuring to become more competitive and less reliant on subsidies. Farming is a business. They will have to look for market niches.”

The European Union currently pays farmers who meet health and sanitary standards a subsidy, to help maintain Europe’s farming tradition and as an acknowledgment that it is more expensive to farm in Europe than in other parts of the world.

It also provides matching funds to all European Union national governments for agricultural development, to upgrade and modernize farms. The national governments decide what types of projects qualify, but the boundaries are loosely defined. In various countries they have included buying new equipment and developing organic cultivation, as well as turning nonperforming farms into bed-and-breakfasts.

In a coming review of such polices, the European Commission is planning to encourage spending more money to develop organic agriculture. “The whole idea is to empower farmers,” Mr. Mann said.

“They don’t need to change anything if they don’t want to,” he added. “But they have to survive in business. If you’re still milking cows by hand, maybe you would want to use the money to put in a new system.”

The New York Times

Stryszow’s farmers are fighting Europe’s regulations.

While overall farm income in Poland has gone up since the country has joined the European Union, that is certainly not the case for the small farmers here. In Poland, 22 percent of the work force is employed in agriculture, and the country boasts by far the highest number of farms in Europe. Most of them are tiny.

The average farm size is about 17 acres, compared with about 59 acres in Spain, France and Germany. There are 1.5 million small farms in Poland. Only Italy, with its proliferation of high-end niche agricultural products, compares to Poland in its abundance of small producers.

But the fall of Communism and, more recently, European Union membership have opened this once cloistered land to global forces: international competition, sanitary codes, trade rules and the like. Sir Julian recalls that at an agricultural conference in 1999 a pamphlet advertised “Poland up for grabs!” That is what has happened, he said.

In a market newly saturated with huge efficient players, these small traditional farmers are being overwhelmed. The American bacon producer Smithfield Farms now operates a dozen vast industrial pig farms in Poland. Importing cheap soy feed from South America, which the company feeds to its tens of thousands of pigs, it has caused the price of pork to drop strikingly in the past couple of years. Since European Union membership, the prices of pork and milk have dropped 30 percent.

In early March, hundreds of Polish farmers demonstrated outside the office of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, complaining that they were losing money on each hog they raised. Anyway, Mr. Master said, raising pigs for sale was a nonstarter. He is forbidden to slaughter his own pigs, and the nearest abattoir that meets European Union standards is hours away; there are only five in all of Poland.

“It is impossible for me to farm,” he lamented over beet soup, in his ragged sweater and black work pants. He and his wife know that the European Union offers subsidies and loans to modernize traditional farms. But, they say, it is not enough money, it is not what they want and they are not adept at navigating the bureaucracy. They tried to fill out the paperwork to get certified as an organic farm but found it overwhelming.

Poland has a tradition of small farming that has persisted for centuries. Unlike farmers in the rest of Eastern Europe, Poland’s farmers even resisted collectivization under Communism. Now, Ms. Lopata said, they are “organic by default,” and “at the vanguard of an ecological, healthy way of food producing.”

In a small barn covered with matted straw, Barbara and Andrzej Wojcik say they feel like outcasts. They used to make a decent living selling pork from pigs they raised as well as the milk and butter from their six cows.

But they said that with the price of pork so low they could not afford to raise pigs slowly, the traditional way. As for milk, their local collection station closed a few years ago. So they have no way to get their products to market, even if they buy the required stainless steel equipment.

Now they have sold all but two of their cows and reverted to subsistence farming. They live off their parents’ pensions, barter and a bit of money selling sewed crafts. “The new laws are killing us,” Ms. Wojcik said.

Mr. Mann, from the European Commission, acknowledges that small farmers in places like Poland may have to adapt. “There is a place for the small farmer,” he said, “but they have to be smart and not rely on payouts.”

But deft adaptation seems hard here, a place set in its ways — and may be bad for the environment anyway. A collective system for selling organic vegetables to the city, devised by Ms. Lopata, never got off the ground.

“They tend to be very individualistic,” she said. “They think they survived Communist efforts to collectivize them, so they will survive this. They don’t realize the European Union and the global market are even harder.”

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