DZIEKANOW NOWY, Poland — Anger in her stride, Janina Sotomska walked over to a storage shed, the closest thing to a barn on her small farm, and threw open the doors.
"I'll show you the wheat we cannot sell," she said, her tone laced with bitterness. "They bring us wheat from Canada, and we cannot sell our own!"
Before her, on high platforms about 5 feet below the shed's rafters, were heaps of loose grain mixed with field debris, unprotected against rodents. The wheat weighed a few tons, was worth perhaps a few hundred dollars and seemed quite pitiful compared with the image of huge North American grain elevators.
While the forlorn wheat heap may not have amounted to much in the scheme of global trade, the plight of Polish farmers that it reflected has enormous significance for the effort to build a more united Europe.
An expanded European Union would mean little without Poland, which, with 39 million people, has by far the biggest population and largest economy of the Eastern European states that once were Moscow's satellites. But the obstacles to integrating Polish agriculture into European Union structures are immense.
Most Polish farmers, who generally operate on a small scale and with limited technology, share Sotomska and her husband's bitterness toward what they see as unfair competition from imports, especially those produced by heavily subsidized Western European farmers.
The European Union "wants Poland to become a market where they can sell the produce they have in abundance," complained Andrzej Lepper, the radical leader of the Self-Defense farmers union, which in the past three years has repeatedly used roadblocks around Poland to stage violent protests against farm imports. "We need the protection of our borders from the uncontrollable deluge of agricultural products coming from the West."
Subsidies to Member Nations
Farmers in the European Union receive subsidies paid directly to them out of the EU budget, while export subsidies help dispose of excess production. The result, in the view of angry and envious Polish farmers, is that their neighbors to the West can both live well and keep their prices lower.
The issue is not exactly that Polish farming is noncompetitive. Offered as pig feed, even small quantities of poorly stored grain like Sotomska's wheat could have competitive value.
EU policy aims to boost farmers' incomes to roughly match the average in society at large. The main problem for Polish farmers, however, is that they have a low standard of living and there are so many of them.
The EU spends about $40 billion a year, nearly half its budget, on subsidies for agriculture, with most of that money coming from taxpayers in the richer countries such as Germany. Providing EU subsidies on the same terms to Polish farmers would cost billions more and risk a taxpayer revolt--in short, it might break the bank.
Politicians in this region still speak optimistically of Poland and some of its neighbors joining the European Union as early as Jan. 1, 2003. That might be possible for Hungary and perhaps even the Czech Republic, both of which have much smaller agricultural sectors.
But with 26% of Poland's labor force employed in agriculture to produce just 6% of the country's economic output, the dilemma posed by Polish farmers would appear to defy solution in any such limited time frame. As negotiators begin to address the issue, few Polish farmers believe that the question of their fate in an expanded European Union will be resolved quickly in a way that will protect their livelihoods.
Polish family farms survived in private hands even under communism, so the move toward a market economy since the 1989 switch to democracy here hasn't had much effect on the ownership of agricultural land. But the rural scene is now divided between the approximately 850,000 farms that produce for the market and an additional 1.2 million households that own farmland and use it to grow crops or raise livestock but that sell virtually nothing.
The first category has been hit hard not only by subsidized imports from the European Union but also by a collapse of purchasing power in the former Soviet Union and a more competitive domestic market as state purchases have shrunk. The second category consists largely of pensioners or families who have at least one member working at a nonagricultural job or receiving unemployment benefits.
"There's a joke that we tell through tears about Polish agriculture: It's better to have two pensioners on a farm than 15 cows," said Jerzy Jurkiewicz, 52, a pig farmer in the village of Gaski, 50 miles north of Warsaw.
15 Cows Not Enough to Earn a Living
In addition to its intended point--that many rural people have a harder time getting a steady income from farming than they do from collecting government benefits--the joke contains an unintended insight: In Poland, farmers think that keeping 15 cows should be enough to make a living.