Letter From Poland: actual Sept 1st 2007

Good morning all!

I have just returned from Podlaskie’s ‘land of lakes’ where a considerable upheavel is going on in the farming communities that stretch across this large northern most Polish Province.

Here the farms are much bigger than Malpolska’s typical 7 hectare strip-farmed small holdings I reported on last month. In Podlaskie, the farmhouse and outbuildings form the centre of the farm, surrounded by fields rising and dipping amongst the rolling hills and tranquil lakes.

It’s an area almost exclusively devoted to farming, with little other industry to be seen – and the small towns and villages depend heavilly on the agricultural rural economy for their subsistence.

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the farmers and citizens in these scattered communities have become increasingly restless and apprehensive about the future of their rural way of life. A way of life that is, day by day, steadily becoming more and more dependent upon regulatory controls emenating from Brussels.

At the centre of the seismic tremors now effecting Podlaskie are the large number of dairy farmers in this Province. Already smitten by an unreasonably low national milk quota, dairy farmers are now facing the infamous barrage of “sanitary and hygiene” regulations which are the hallmark of EU officialdom on it’s zealous and seemingly endless mission to sterilize and sanitize real farm foods.

It started with the forced closure of many small milk processing plants – deemed ‘unfit’ to continue processing local milk supplies, without significant, costly, but largely superficial changes being made to their premises.

Farmers cycling slowly down the road with a couple of churns of milk destined for the nearest pick-up point, have now been forced off the road: their long time practice falling foul of the same bacteriological police.

In an attempt to keep the supply chain going, the larger dairy companies have started offering farmers financial incentives to produce more than 500 litres a day – amounting to a 30% price increase over the standard rate of approximately 18p a litre.

Framers attracted by the higher milk price – and desperate to have some profitable enterprise on their farms, have rushed to fulfil the obligations necessary in order to supply greater volumes of milk to these dairies.

This has involved considerably increasing cow numbers, intensifying production, using more pesticides and larger machinery.

All this new investment has been accompanied by an equally dramatic change to the traditional cereal and grass/clover ley rotations. Now it’s maize, maize, maize, as far as the eye can see. And the old rotations are turning into modern monocultures.

The once pristine lakes, greatly favoured by tourists from all over the world, are suddenly showing signs that all is not well. Fish stocks are falling and water quality declining – the cause, according to government environmental authorities, is run-off from the rapidly increasing volumes of slurry produced by the increase in dairy herd size. Pesticide and nitrate residues are also cited as new pollutants.

Farmers who are made aware of this growing problem scratch their heads in despair and ask what they can do about it. Many have already borrowed heavily from the banks inorder to get their enterprises up to the levels required to produce the higher volumes of milk – and be rewarded by the dairy processor’s carrot of a 30% price hike.

“The processors say that they need higher liquid milk volumes and fewer pick-up points” said a burly dairy farmer ” We can no longer take the milk to them – so they send these large milk tankers around the farms – and pursuade us to consolidate our enterprises and produce larger volumes to cover their costs.”

Somehow this all sounds just a little too familiar – and I can see the red lights flashing and hear the alarm bells ringing. Already the on-farm problems are stacking up: unable to produce enough hay and silage to meet the notoriously cold winter feeding conditions, farmers are turning to bought-in genetically modified soya and maize feed imported from the USA, in order to bolster winter rations.

Suddenly, the independent, steady and reasonably comfortable farmers I had met on my first visit to these regions in 2001, are looking agitated, stressed and anxious. They probably know that they are becoming trapped by a system that will offer no compensation when the milk prices fall and the banks demand repayment.

Then they will be confronted by the same tragic circumstances that faced our UK dairy family farmers – who put up their farms as collateral for the loans they needed – to expand their businesses – to meet the same illusive goals.

Tragic indeed is every loss of life, taken in utter desperation and despair – when there appears to be nothing ahead which offers hope of a way out – and the bank manager is standing at the door.

Yes, it starts from a seemingly innocuous change in regulations devised by senior beaurocrats at the European Commission, or national government. Individuals – most of whom have never set foot on a farm in their lives. And it ends in the seemingly uncontrollable pollution of once pristine lakes, rivers and fields; the steady denaturing of quality food and the ultimate collapse of once stable farming communities.

We have been here before. But when I tell the story and warn of the often devastating consequences of falling into the same trap – they just stare at me, long and hard.

Is there any way to break the seemingly indestructible cycle of repeating each others mistakes over and over again?

Julian Rose
Sept.1st 2007