Poles Apart from the European Union


By James Drake Driving down from the Carpathian mountains into the Polish "eco-village" of Stryszow is a bit like bumbling into the opening chapter of a Thomas Hardy novel, or a particularly rustic scene by Brueghel the Elder. Ruddy-faced youths hail each other from their perches atop hayricks and ancient, hand-operated wooden threshers. A garlanded maypole-type construction built to celebrate the first day of summer nestles next to the pastel-painted parish church. Mothers in head shawls sit singing and spinning on verandahs hung with drying herbs, antediluvian gardening contraptions, and sausages the size of overripe bananas.

But these are no hippies on a "back to the land" trip. They're genuine peasants whose families have been on the land for generations here in Stryszow. Now they're pioneers who have created Poland's first 100% organic farming community.

At the far end of the hamlet, beside a wooden villa fitted with solar panels and a satellite dish, a handsome, middle-aged woman watches through the walls of her geodesic greenhouse while her husband trails a venerable piebald pulling a plough through their tiny wheat field. "We started farming organically as an experiment. It worked, and now all my neighbors are organic," grins Jadwiga Lopata, the driving force behind Stryszow's move to organic farming.

RATHER SWITCH THAN FIGHT. With the demand for organic fare rising by 25% annually in Western Europe, it's a new cash crop, Lopata enthuses. "What we hope now is that the rest of the country will follow our example. You see, it's really not that hard to switch...the longest it took anyone here was 18 months."

Trouble is, the rest of the country may not have that long. Poland is due to join the European Union (EU) in 2004. And with E-Day drawing closer, Brussels has slapped down an ultimatum: If it hopes to join the EU on schedule, Poland must finish restructuring its agrarian sector within the first nine months of this year. That could snuff out more than a million family-farming operations for good. "The average [Polish] unit is uneconomic and hazardous to health," sniffs Johann Reiner, spokesman for European Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler. "This issue is the single biggest barrier to accession. And no -- we can't give them more time. They've had plenty of time to prepare already."

He's right about that, at least. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, heavily-subsidized, mass-produced EU goods have been pouring into Poland, driving the little farmer to the wall, traditional delicacies from the shop shelves, and rural young people to the cities in search of work. "Not that there are any jobs there, either -- there's 15% unemployment in Poland already," sighs Lopata's son, Chris. "But that's not their problem is, it?" It certainly isn't: The EU recently banned migration of labor from Poland for the next seven years.

FROM COMMISSARS TO BUREAUCRATS. What really spurred Lopata into action, however, was the belief that Polish farmers will probably never be accorded the huge subsidies that prop up inefficient farms in Germany, France, and elsewhere in the EU. "We simply decided: OK. They're never going to play their game fairly," Lopata smiles grimly, the lines around her mouth hardening into a pair of ironic parentheses. "So we'll play a completely different game."

As it happens, Polish farmers are well-suited to organic farming because they never used much in the way of modern herbicides and pesticides. When the Soviet Union's newly acquired satellite states began to confiscate and collectivize property after World War II, villages like Stryszow would have none of it. "They jailed us, they even shot a few of us," grunts Stanislaw Nicieja, a dapper 70-year-old strawberry grower. "In the end, they just left us alone."

Today, some 30% of Poland's population lives on the land, (compared with just 4% in the neighboring Czech Republic), and two-thirds of the farms are small, subsistence plots. "It takes a Dutch farmer 10 years to drain his soil of sulphates," Lopata points out. "But we could never afford all that delay."

RELEARNED SKILLS. After 18-months attending an ecological workshop in Holland and relearning the principles of biodiversity and crop rotation, Lopata began teaching her friends to make the switch. For a while, they struggled along by taking second jobs, while supplying German wholesalers with raw materials for processing, packaging, and resale to health food stores. Nowadays, thanks to Lopata's newly-minted Internet cooperative marketing venture, they go straight to the retail outlets, cutting out the mittelmann and reaping the healthy premium. "We're not -- how do you say -- Luddites," insists Lopata, with a nod to the computer winking away in the corner of her living room. "We simply believe in selecting the best of the new technology and leaving the rest to others."

Sadly, that's not the way many of Lopata's peers see things. Although the organic movement now boasts some 3,000 converts from the Baltics to the Belarus border, no other communities have followed the lead and converted en masse. "Everyone else here thinks we're old-fashioned -- going backwards instead of forward," says Jurek Trawinski, from the settlement of Nowina, who offers visitors riding holidays around the encircling woods and lakes under a farm-vacation scheme that Lopata pioneered to ease the transition to organic and provide a second source of income.

Every so often, EU inspectors pay surprise visits to these farm communities, blithely oblivious to the anti-EU antipathy among the locals. "They said I couldn't sell my milk and cheese because the cowshed was too close to my house, reports Janina Serniuk from the town of Jelenia Gora, who has just moved over to Lopata's camp. "When I moved it, they still said I couldn't sell it because my driveway is too small to admit a truck -- which it is. But I've only got three cows left, so I told them I don't need one."

"SUNRISE INDUSTRY". Other foreigners have come nosing around too: Chemical company reps bearing free samples and German agribarons offering quick cash for cheap land. "You know, this part of Poland used to be in Germany. We were moved here from [present-day] Belorussia only after the war," muses Trawinski. "Maybe this is their way of taking it back."

In fact, it's probably hard cash that calls the shots around the village these days. Explains British landowner and eco-activist Sir Julian Rose: "There's so much overproduction at home that big farmers are paid not to farm their own land, so they take their money and come to places like Poland to buy more. It's crazy, isn't it?"

Lopata's green guerillas aren't ready to haul up the homespun white flag just yet. Lopata is even circulating a worldwide petition calling on Warsaw to postpone EU entry indefinitely. "Factory farming is a sunset industry. This is a sunrise industry," she smiles. Perhaps -- though many folks in Stryszow reckon she would have a better chance of reasoning with the local wild boar than with government bureaucrats. To be on the safe side, then, lovers of quiet, understated beauty had best visit this part of Poland now, while stocks last. Drake libves in Prague and reports on Eastern Europe.


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