Real food and real people

You know there’s something different the minute the plane emerges beneath the clouds. There below, is a chess board of hedgeless, patchwork fields in various shades of green, amber and brown – with the occasional clump of trees reaching up amongst the spreadeagled farmland.

Then there are the houses, mostly rather small, dotted around here and there in characteristicly nonconformist groups – and the little roads further dissecting the landscape.

For anyone with half an eye for the agricultural lay of the land, one’s curiosity is immediately aroused. For large swathes of Southern and Eastern Poland are still the domain of a peasant farming tradition which has changed little in the past three hundred years.

Indeed, it’s “Back to the Future”: a land of workhorses, smallholdings, Real Food and real people!

The small farms, averaging seven hectares, number approximately one and a half million. And then, there are another 300 000 medium sized farms, of approximately twenty hectares – and a smaller number of seriously large, cereal producing enterprises, mostly situated in the North and West of the Country.

Nearly all these farms have owner occupier status, there are relatively few tenanted farms.

Over the course of the last 5 years, in which I have spent the majority of my time in Poland, I have travelled the length and breadth of this countryside, as part of my role as president of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside – and have experienced the warmth and hospitality of many ruddy faced farmers, engaged in the rigors of the farming cycle and the maintenance of an essentially “self sufficient” subsistence life style.

Most farming communities in Poland were never brought under the yolk of the big Soviet co-operatives that caused such disruption in other Eastern European Countries.

The Communist regime of the pre 1989 liberation, simply didn’t believe it was worthwhile trying to harness so many small and scattered holdings, many situated in the hilly and mountainous regions, away from the main arteries and cities.

Consequently, the one and a half million ‘smallholdings’ continue a way of life that would easily be recognised by their forebearers.

Peering out of my bedroom window at around six thirty am on a bright spring morning in the Beskidi hills near Krakow, I am greeted by the sound of the neighbouring farmer and his half ton Malopolska work horse, slowly traversing his half hectare strip of land, in preparation for a crop of traditional spring oats.

“Viorrr!” booms the farmer – and the horse responds by tucking in his head and stamping off down the field.
“Prrrr!”: he booms again – and the great beast obliges by stopping in his tracks.
“Hectaaar!” belows the farmer, and the animal slowly turns, to continue back down the field, hauling the single furrow mouldboard plough through the loamy top soil.

“Zijndobri!” I shout as they turn on the narrow headland. “Dobri!” shouts the farmer back.

In the comfortable five room, 60 year old farmhouse nearby, the farmer’s wife prepares the breakfast of smoked ham and sausage, boiled egg and some pickled cucumber from last year’s crop.

The ham and sausage are from the pig killed a few days earlier and smoked in the wood fired smokehouse. A cup of real coffee is made by dropping the grains straight into the cup and adding boiling water – no instant hydrated brands yet!

A dash of milk from the house cow completes the job…

The kitchen stove is a sturdy steel wood burning model, to be found in virtually every farmhouse in Poland and in many cases, used all the year round for making the main meals.

The cow will later go out to pasture where she will be tethered , cropping a circle of pasture controled by the length of her chain – and then moved onto a fresh area. No fences needed with this simple system. The farmyard hens wander around at will, pecking and clucking in their gentle ambling search for tasty morcels.

At 7:30 am the children scurry off to the village school, around one and a half kilometres down the road. Nobody accompanies them – there is no paranoia about the dangers of abduction or suchlike in these village communities.

A little later, the farmer reemerges, this time hitching a chain harrow to the horse’s yolk…and the field is soon levelled in preparation for seeding; a process carried out by hand broadcasting on the smaller fields, and by seed drill on the larger ones. The seeds have been saved from the previous season crops – a tradition shared by farmers the world over. Agrichemicals are seldom resorted to and strict crop roations are the norm on all the traditional farms.

I am reminded of life in the Countryside on our family farm in South Oxfordshire some 50 years ago. The slow but steady pace of life. The active routines and interactions of a land based community. The distinctive flavors of Real Food – and the cheery hospitality of neighbours.

But this is 2007! And even more remarkaby – this is a Country in which 20 percent of the workforce is still engaged in agricultural pursuits.

HOWEVER, it’s a way of life whose survival is now facing its’ biggest ever challenge: that presented by Poland’s succession into the European Union in 2004.

This is a way of life that should no longer exist in the 21st century, according to the EU. These small, self sufficient, ecological farms – able to feed the family and sell the surplus onto neighbors – have no place in the “Restructuring and Modernisation” process advocated by Brussels. A process that has already changed the face of Western European farming communities over the past 4 decades.

Part of the accession deal that Poland signed up to, involves shifting large numbers of farming families off the land and into the overcrowded cities – so that their holdings can be amalgamated, mechanised and intensified to supply the already oversupplied global market place with the mass produced commodities that line the groaning supermarket shelves of Western Europe.

With unemployment rates running at 15 percent – and over 3 million Poles already dispersed all over Europe in search of work, it seems a particularly misplaced policy goal…/..and the question which I will address in my next letter, is: “how are these family farms coping with this covert process of eviction….and will they fight back?”

Julian Rose,

July 2007