Europe’s small farms disappear

Thursday, April 3, 2008

That conflict obviously matters to 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 Master’s should be promoted, or least protected, they say. Not only do they yield tastier foods but they also produce few of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and put little other pressure on the environment.

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 designed for another universe of farming, and Polish farmers say they have left them at a steep disadvantage.

If they want to sell their products, for example, EU law requires farms to have cement floors in their barns and special equipment for slaughtering. Milking cows by hand is forbidden. As a result, the milk collection stations and tiny slaughterhouses that until just a few years ago dotted the Polish countryside have closed. Small family farming is all but impossible.

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

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

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

Lopata received the Goldman Prize for 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 banned genetically modified organisms in defiance of European Union and Word Trade Organization mandates. The Polish Agriculture Ministry announced earlier this year that it planned to ban their import in animal fodder, another refusal to accept EU policy.

In Brussels, 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 added: "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 EU now pays farmers who meet health and sanitary standards a direct subsidy, to help maintain Europe’s farming tradition and as an acknowledgement that it is more expensive to farm in Europe than in other parts of the world.

It also provides matching funds to all EU 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 purchasing new equipment and developing organic cultivation, as well as turning nonperforming farms into bed- and-breakfast accommodations.

In a new policy review, the European Commission is planning to encourage that more money be spent to develop organic agriculture. "The whole idea is to empower farmers," 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."

While overall farm income in Poland has gone up since the country joined the EU, it is certainly not the case for the small farmers.

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 size is 7 hectares, or 17 acres, compared to more than 24 hectares in Spain, France and Germany, the Union’s other large agriculture players. There are 1.5 million small farms in Poland. Only Italy, with its proliferation of high-end, niche agricultural products compares with Poland in its abundance of small producers.

But the collapse of communism and, more recently, EU membership has opened this once cloistered swath of land to global forces: international competition, sanitary codes, international trade rules and the like. Sir Julian recalls that at an agricultural conference he attended in 1999 a pamphlet advertised: "Poland up for grabs!" That is what has happened, he says.

In a market newly saturated with huge, efficient players, these small traditional farmers are being simply 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 intensively to its tens of thousands of pigs, it has caused the price of pork to drop dramatically in the past couple of years. Since EU membership, the prices of pork and milk have dropped 30 percent.

Hundreds of Polish farmers demonstrated recently outside the office of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, complaining that they were losing money on each hog they reared. Anyway, Master says, rearing pigs for sale is a non-starter. He is forbidden to slaughter his own pigs and the nearest abattoir that meets EU standards is hours away; there are only five in all of Poland.

"It is impossible for me to farm," he lamented over a meal of traditional beet soup. He and his wife know that the European Union offers subsidies and loans to modernize traditional farms, equipping them with tractors and steel milk containers, for example. But, they say, it is not enough money, it is not what they want, and they are not adept at navigating the new bureaucracy. Master said they tried to fill out the paperwork required to get certified as an organic farm, but found it overwhelming.

Poland has a long tradition of small farming that has persisted through the centuries. Unlike farmers in the rest of Eastern Europe, Poland’s farmers even resisted collectivization under communism. Now Lopata says they are "organic by default," currently "at the vanguard of an ecological, healthy way of food producing."

In a small barn covered matted with straw, Barbara and Andrzej Wojcik, 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 with the price of pork so low they could not afford to raise pigs the traditional way. As for milk, their local collection station closed, so they have no way to get their products to market, even if they were to invest in buying 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 from selling handicrafts.

Mann, from the European Commission, acknowledged that small farmers in places like Poland and Romania 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 long set in its ways – and may be bad for the environment anyway. A collective system for selling organic vegetables to the city, devised by 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."

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.