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Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 05:27 GMT
Down on the farm
Hungarian tractor
East European farming still moves at a placid pace

The EU will soon formally invite 10 countries to join - a move that for many marks the climax of the transition from communism. BBC News Online is touring Eastern Europe to find out if its economies are up to speed.

On the face of it, Poland's Beskidy Maly mountains, tucked between Krakow and the Slovak border, scarcely look like a threat to European stability.


If the government introduced a more realistic definition of what a farmer actually is, the country's agricultural sector would not seem half so inefficient

Czeslaw Nowak, Agricultural University of Krakow
At Irena and Ryszard Fraszczak's tiny farm, on a misty peak high above the town of Andrychow, the peace is disturbed only by the clucking of chickens.

The Fraszczaks don't produce a great deal from their dozen organic acres - a few potatoes, some fruit, the odd litre of milk - but they eke out their income with a stream of paying guests, who come from all over Europe and beyond to sample rural life at its simplest.

But Brussels is not beguiled by such bucolic bliss.

As EU enlargement looms, officials are increasingly concerned about how to accommodate the Fraszczaks and millions of other small East European farmers in the continent's agricultural machine.

Small, not beautiful

The problem with Poland - and, to a somewhat lesser extent, with its East European neighbours - is that its farming sector bears little resemblance to what the West is used to.

Southern Poland
In the plains of central Poland, a few grain barons have emerged, but most Polish farming remains at an uneconomically paltry scale.

Some 1.6 million of Poland's 2.5 million registered farmers work on less than 20 acres, a plot of land seen as barely viable for a West European farmer.

The result of this is feeble productivity: although farming employs almost one in three Poles, it accounts for less than 5% of national economic output.

Money worries

For years now, Brussels bureaucrats have been aware that this sort of thing could never be shoehorned into the Common Agricultural Policy, which showers subsidies on farmers in poorer regions.

The Beskidy Maly mountains
Pretty, but not exactly profitable
The CAP already accounts for about one-third of Brussels' entire budget; since almost all East European countries would qualify, the extra demand for subsidy would bankrupt the EU.

So far, EU member states have agreed a compromise deal, under which new members will be allowed a small but growing proportion of total farm payments, rising only to parity with the West when the CAP is finally abolished in 2013.

This compromise, predictably, has pleased few, east or west; in Poland, farmers fume at being forced onto an uneven playing field for far longer than anyone ever anticipated.

Fake farmers

The trickier question, however, is how much and what sort of help East European farmers will need to make them profitable in the long run.

Czeslaw Nowak, a professor at the Agricultural University of Krakow, argues that a certain measure of cruelty is inevitable if the sector is to be revived.

Czeslaw Nowak
Honesty would be the best policy, argues Dr Nowak
For years, he says, successive Polish governments have turned a blind eye to hidden unemployment in the agricultural sector.

"The figures say that 28% of Poles are farmers, but in fact, less than half of them ever produce anything for the market."

Some 50% of Polish farmers produce only for themselves and their families, and 3% produce nothing at all, Dr Nowak says.

Open in new window : At-a-glance
Europe's new economies

"It makes no more sense to call these people farmers than to call them restaurant owners because they make the occasional cup of tea."

Brutal honesty

The ranks of Poland's fake farmers are swelled by tax law.

Farm employment
Registered farmers pay extremely low tax and social-security contributions, a perk that persuades many town-dwellers to buy or rent small plots of rural land to qualify.

"If the government introduced a more realistic definition of what a farmer actually is, the country's agricultural sector would not seem half so inefficient," says Dr Nowak.

"But politicians won't admit it, because then official unemployment would rise by a million or more."

Poland already has some 3.2 million people out of work, one of the highest levels among the EU candidate countries.

Trade, not aid

Dr Nowak hopes that the government will not simply channel subsidies to Polish farmers.

Irena Fraszczak
Mrs Fraszczak is happy as she is, thank you
The key, he argues, is creating employment opportunities in rural areas, something that might stem the relentless draining away of rural youth to the big cities.

EU structural funds - money earmarked for infrastructure projects in poorer countries - should be poured into improving rural Poland's ropey roads and almost non-existent telecoms network.

On the Andrychow mountain, meanwhile, the Fraszczaks are not exactly panting for government hand-outs.

"We don't ask anything from the government," says Irena.

"We let them do their business, and hope they leave us alone to do ours."


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25 Oct 02 | Business
22 Aug 02 | Europe
22 Jul 02 | Europe
10 Jul 02 | Europe
29 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
21 Mar 02 | Europe
30 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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