Polish Horse Power, Peasants and Politics

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January 2008

The small peasant farms of Poland form the bedrock of traditional farming practices in this highly diverse and relatively unspoiled Country. I say ‘relatively’, because over the past decade Poland has been subjected to a full frontal corporate and EU attack upon it’s indigenous resources  – industrial as well as agricultural.

However, inspite of a big post Communist sell off of national industries and a predictable fascination in capitalist ‘free market’ carrots, Poland retains a certain solidity and is not yet wedded to the urban inspired life style that so strongly influences UK socio-economic patterns.

Around 22% of the Polish working population are engaged in agricultural pursuits and farming remains Poland’s single largest gross domestic product earner.

There are still approximately one and a half million Polish farms with an average size of seven hectares, spread across the Country. They form a colourful patchwork quilt of fertile land strips  that remind one of what the mediaevil English strip farms must have once looked like, spreading out around the villages they supplied.

The great majority of these farms have owner occupier status, but there is a considerable amount of  informal renting between farmers looking for a few extra hectares, or a little extra income.

There are no enforced privacy laws on this land. One can walk freely over the fields and only if one deliberately damages growing crops is their likely to be any retribution from the farmer.

Hedges are scarce and fences non existant on most of the small farms. Demarkations between seperately owned strips of land are only known to the owners.

What is most striking to the Western European outsider is that these small holdings are working models of a subsistance farming model long since abandoned in our part of the world. The majority use no, or only very minimal amounts of chemical inputs.

All biodegradeable materials are recycled, crops are rotated and farm yard manures are well utilised. Small 35 horse power tractors and traditional working horses combine to provide the main power requirements. Additionally, most of such farms utilize local woodland areas (legally) to access their fire wood requirements. Wood fuel forms a key part of farmhouse winter heating and cooking needs.

These farmsteads could be described as ‘organic by default’. Very few are officially registered as ‘organic’, although it would only take a small adjustment in their practices to do so.. There is a very limited local market for certified organic produce in Poland, perhaps because the traditional food is already of a high quality and flavour and few consumers seem ready to pay more for something with an organic label on it.

The main production interest in this domain comes from somewhat larger farmers, mostly located in central and north western Poland, keen to improve their incomes by exporting their products to Germany, the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

There are said to be around five hundred thousand work horses still engaged in tilling the land and  working the forests in Poland. These beasts occupy an important place in the overal economy and ecology of Polish smallholdings, as they compare most favourably with tractors in their ability to work the land with a light ecological footprint and to transform the fruits of the land into inexpensive pulling power.

There is little need to painstakingly substantiate this fact, as the simple reality described below adequately conveys the message:

* The horse requires a diet of renewable energy in the form of home grown hay and oats, whereas the tractor requires a diet of non renewable and finite fuel in the form of oil and diesel.

* The tractor’s construction/manufacture and upkeep also relies heavilly on the same oil based energy source, whereas the horse arrives in this world as part of a natural breeding cycle requiring no additional energy inputs.

*The tractors life span may be a fraction longer than the work horse’s. However, providing the farmer has a mare, she will reproduce and provide many generations of working horses that will still be working the land long after the tractor has expired.

*The foals that are not needed to grow on for immediate farmwork are sold at a good profit.

*Tractors cannot reproduce (yet!) therefore there is only one opportunity to get a financial return on their second hand value.

* The costs entailed in buying a tractor and keeping it in a good state of repair during it’s working life, far exceed any vetinary costs entailed in maintaining the condition of the workhorse over the same period of time. Local medicinal herbs remain naturally integrated in the meadows, so farm animals benefit from the natural diversity of a species rich diet.

*The soil over which a tractor repeatedly passes is steadilly compacted and looses it’s capacity for free drainage and good nutrient recycling, thus negatively affecting yields. The horse’s more gentle ,  footprint circumvents such problems and helps the soil to retain it’s optimum levels of fertility.

*The horse contributes to the overal fertility of the farm via the manure and urine passed during the passage of his/her life. The tractor contributes a negative emmissions balance via CO2 and other related pollutants.

*The horse and it’s master (plus friends) form a close and often mutually supportive relationship. Children also benefit and greatly enjoy the horse’s company.

These are just some of the main attributes that Polish farmers – and all others who work with    horses around the world – will have discovered during the course of their lives.

The only clear advantage attributable to the tractor is that it can do most of the jobs 20% faster than the work horse. This does not apply to tree trunk haulage in the forests.

The amount of land required to fulfill the workhorse’s dietary requirements (1 to 1.5 acres per horse as a rough rule of thumb) has to be taken into account in the overal scheme of things. However, this has to be set against running the tractor on non renewable imported oil based fuels coming from hundreds if not thousands of miles away.

It is worth noting the example taken from a US farm study conducted over a forty year period on a thirty acre mixed farmstead in Michigan. In this assessment, a significant net revenue, not directly attributable to the sale of agricultural produce, is ultimately accrued to the work horse owner.  According to the  report, a positive revenue of approximately $21,000 is notched up over this period of time, because the owner specifically benefits from the sale of his workhorse’s prodgeny. The equivalent position for the same sized mixed tractor powered farm, where the tractor is traded in every ten years for a new one, is a net cost of $70,000. (Chet Kendell, Michigan, Rural Heritage magazine, Spring 2005).

As President of the International Coalition  to Protect the Polish Countryside, I spend a considerable amount of time fighting to defend the survival of the Polish peasant farms.  Jadwiga Lopata,  founder and vice President of ICPPC, with whom I work, grew up on a small peasant farm and retains a strong belief in the key role such farms play in protecting the rich biodiversity of the countryside.

Poland is indeed blessed with a remarkable variety of indigenous wild plants and an equally impressive native farmland bird count. A recent RSPB report stated that Poland retained a 40% higher native bird population than any other Country in Europe.

At the last national count, there were 44,000 pairs of nesting storks still choosing Poland as their summer residence, a figure far exceeding any other Country.

All this goes to show that these farmers must be doing something right. The wildlife thrives on the mixed traditional farmland with it’s minimal use of agrichemicals and the perpetuation of native, non hybridised crops.  The countryside’s peasant farmers continue to take pride in the fact that they can feed their families and sell any small surplus locally. Seven hectares may be the average farm size for the whole Country, but many farms in southern Poland are much smaller.

The largest farms, many with foreign owners, are mostly situated in the north and west of the Country. Some of these holdings are many thousands of hectares in size and are largely agrichemically dependent  monocultural cereal enterprises, geared to taking advantage of the export market and EU subsidy payments.

Many of such farms occupy land once run as State Co-operatives by the pre 1989 Communist regime. However, the Communists never succeeded in establishing the widespread large scale co-operative farms typically found in Checkoslovakia and Hungary at the same point in history. The Polish peasants effectively resisted all attempts to remove them from the land.

These robust farmers demonstrate an extraordinary blend of skills. It is common for the farmer and his family to build and equip their own home, dig their well and even construct a makeshift tractor. Their wives are equally adept in the art of traditional ‘fridge-free’ food preservation, butter and cheese making, general livestock managemment and home sewing skills.

All in all this amounts to about the best model we have in Europe for a low carbon footprint society of the future. It is streaks ahead of even the most fastidious “first world” organic practitioners.

Ironically however, the European Union is demanding the “restructuring and modernising” of Polish agriculture just at the time when their own ‘best practice’ model agribusiness farms are being slated for their major contribution to Global Warming and poorly maintained soils.

It is an iniquitous position. One ounce of good honest common sense in the right hands would be enough to ensure a reversal of such unmistakeably misplaced policy decisions .

As it is, through the imposition of completely inappropriate ‘hygiene and sanitary’ standards, EU bureaucrats have found the perfect weapon for driving Poland’s small farmers off the land. Such    land clearances are a precondition for the official ‘restructuring’ of small peasant farms into large agribusiness enterprises designed to supply the burgeoning number of hypermarket chains (led by Tesco) sprouting up indiscriminately across the land.

As we in the UK – and others throughout Western Europe – have experienced to our cost over the

past three decades, the bacteriological police have ruthlessly executed their task of imposing completely inappropriate and costly sanitary conditions upon those farms that can least afford to comply with them.

For thousands upon thousands of farms already struggling to cope with the inequalities of a rapidly expanding global food market, the imposition of these new hygiene standards is the final straw.

To their great credit, there are a fair number of small peasant farmers in Poland who remain unwilling to comply with such exigencies. They continue to hand milk their cows and sell their dairy produce to the neighbours. To retain the cow’s straw bedding and shun the concrete demanded by officialdom. To let the swallows fly into their barns and animal sheds rather than denying them access, as demanded by the EU.

We see such farmers every day, sitting nonchantly astride their characteristic horse carts and slowly moving down the Malopolska village streets. They move at a speed perfectly in tune with the rythm of their farming life styles. A gentle pace which allows the vast majority of modern life to go speeding past in a noxious cloud of carbon dioxide fumes.

The major question is, can this peasant resistance, which already defeated the Communist regime’s attempt to take over their land, now be extended to the wider farming population? This would include the medium sized family farms that have been particularly badly caught by government exhortations to modernise and specialise, only to find find themselves economically squeezed dry by the rock bottom supermarket prices subsequently offered for their mass produced commodities.

If dissatisfaction with government, European Union CAP policies and globalized corporate agribusiness should spread across the majority of Polands extensive acreages, we could be in for a big surprise.

In the meantime we continue to do our best to support and promote all well intentioned attempts to maintain, or to wrest back control of  time honored, sustainable farming sytems and the rugged independent life styles that go with them. It’s a fundamental commitment that we all need to make and a reality we may well have to face ourselves – in the not too distant future.

Julian Rose
January 2008