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Saturday, 12 January, 2002, 15:10 GMT
Polish farmers on the bread line
Farming carrots in Poland
Many Polish farms are small-scale concerns
By Susie Emmett in Poland

"Prosche, prosche" - go on, you're welcome. I was being encouraged to try yet more cakes in the farm kitchen.

Made with berries and fruits from field and forest, they were absolutely delicious. Then I was offered an elegant glass of beetroot soup, and fried potato cakes with wild mushrooms.

Once I accepted their hospitality, farming households like the Kobiela family gave me something even more precious - their story.

We feel we have to inherit the farm, and continue the work of our parents - even though we know there's probably no future

Katarzyna Kobiela
Family farms in Poland - and there are some two million of them - survived Russians, Germans and communists, but they may well fall into ruin in the hands of the generation to take them on next.

When Fran Kobiela inherited the small sloping farm at the foot of the Baba Gora mountains, it was his birthright.

Still wearing his farm hat, the burly 60-year-old leans forward across his kitchen table as he emphasises how he has worked all hours, all his life, to improve the land - easing the workload by investing in hard-earned simple machines and planting more summer fruits and vegetables than his forbears ever did. All to hand the farm on to one of his four children.

"I never thought of leaving my land in Zavoya - the place where I was born. I'd feel ill, almost sick, if my children don't want the family farm. No, it's even hard for me to think about it." And the big man breaks off before he breaks down.

End of the road?

In the quiet and privacy of another room in the house his children discuss with me what the family hardly dares think about. Katarzyna and Grzegorz are twins aged 22, both studying part-time. They believe life on the farm is best, and they would like to stay. But small farm incomes have collapsed.

"It's a kind of prison. Our older sisters moved away. One is in the city, and one is in Germany. Me and my brother, we feel we have to inherit the farm, and continue the work of our parents - even though we know probably there's no future," said Katarzyna.

horse-drawn sleigh
Some villagers still travel by horse-drawn sleigh
The reasons why lie far away. In the suburbs of Polish towns and cities, the European supermarkets have arrived. Tesco's and Carrefour offer cheaper imported produce.

"Most Poles are poor," my companion and translator Sebastian tells me. "We have to buy cheapest."

Also, with the fall of communism, Poland lost guaranteed markets for produce further east. The government, keen to join the EU with a modernised agriculture, seems happy to allow the small, often organic, holdings to disappear.

The majority of Poland's farms are tiny, less than 10 acres in size. EU officials say they are inefficient, unsanitary, they perpetuate poverty and they must be thoroughly modernised if Poland is to become a part of the Union.

Traditional livelihood

Next morning, it's winter - a foot of snow. I'm thrilled when Fran Zobiela offers to take me to meet other villagers by horse-drawn sleigh.

In the barn he croons to his horse, Cuba. "I know he understands everything I say," he tells me as he lifts the heavy collar over Cuba's huge bowed head.

I was not the only one excited by the snow. As Cuba clopped out of the barn he threw back his head, Fran let him go and the heavy horse flopped into the powder soft snow, rolling over and over in delight.

'We put our pension into the farm to keep it going for our son and his family,' added the old man, with a tired resignation that spoke volumes

Rolling done with, Cuba stood, straightened and reversed between the traces of the chunky wooden sledge. I climbed aboard and nearly somersaulted straight out the back as Cuba jerked away through the forest.

The snowscape echoed with the refrains of Fran's bawdy song about lying with a woman for warmth on such a day. When it was my turn, yes, I sang Jingle Bells!

When we stopped, the still Sunday silence of the snow-covered landscape was overwhelming. Walking through the drifts, we startled an Alsatian who continued to bark at its own echo from the other side of the valley.

Simple lifestyle

I was led to a small, low timber farmhouse. In the wide porch, stacked with giant woven baskets of kindling and fodder, I kicked and brushed the heavy snow from my boots and coat.

As I straightened, through a door to my left my eyes met the steady gaze of the farm horse. The elderly farming couple were holding the door open to invite me inside.

Their home is divided in half. From the left of the chilly entrance, came the warm, sweet smell of animals housed for the winter. Two red cows glanced at the visitors, large, gleaming hens picked at the cobble floor and four rabbits lolloped around. Two stretched-out pigs lay asleep in the straw.

To the right is the main room. Small and lime-washed a calm powder blue, at one end two small beds were stacked high with patchwork counterpanes.

Food produced on small farms cannot compete with bulk imports
The old man sat down at a table, while his wife attended to her cooking on a wood-burning range.

My question "How have things changed in your lifetime?" got an immediate response. Disregarding their lifetime's work on the land, almost angrily the old lady described how it was impossible to sell anything they produce.

"When we had plenty of potatoes, they were worth nothing, then the same happened selling our pork," she said.

Beneath the anger I sensed how bewildered they felt. The full force of European agri-politics is felt in this simple household. "We put our pension into the farm to keep it going for our son and his family," added the old man with a tired resignation that spoke volumes.

I dearly wanted to stay but knew I should leave. So I did, leaving them carrying on, like so many other Polish family farms, in the only way they know how. Hoping against hope that things will improve.

See also:

30 Nov 01 | Europe
EU fears divide Poland
18 Jul 00 | Europe
Poland presses for EU action
09 Nov 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
04 Dec 00 | Europe
Poles apart
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