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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 13:25 GMT
Poland's farming woes
As the European Union reveals that new members must wait a decade to receive full subsidies, the BBC's Nicholas Walton travels to southern Poland to find out how struggling farmers will be hit.
Szczepan and Helena Master's farm in the southern Polish province of Malopolska is quite unlike most farms to be found in the European Union.
Just next to the farmhouse living room, an upstairs doorway leads to the warm winter quarters of many of Szczepan's animals - a couple of cows, four pigs, 11 piglets and two horses.
Everything that comes from Helena's kitchen - from chicken broth to sweet pickled cabbage to crisp cutlets of pork - is home produced.
It's not an easy life, especially in the depths of one of the coldest Polish winters for years, but Szczepan and Helena, like many others in their tight-knit, traditional community, don't want to do anything else.
Their farm is typical of many across Poland.
Around one in four Poles is employed on the land - compared to an EU average of less than 5% - yet Polish agriculture only accounts for 5% of Poland's earnings.
In Germany the average is around 10 times that size.
Some farms, including Szczepan's, still use horses for much of their power.
The European Union, understandably, is worried about the impact this will have on its farming budget.
The farming budget, along with the regional aid budget, already accounts for around 80% of EU spending.
The EU wants Polish agriculture to restructure and modernise before it is allowed full access to payments such as Common Agricultural Policy subsidies.
But in Poland, this is a highly contentious issue.
Polish farmers have already seen their income fall by 30% since 1996, and there are fears that restructuring to EU standards could spell the end for half of the country's two million farms.
With the Polish economy faltering, and unemployment rising above 17%, farmers like Szczepan Master can't find other work to supplement their incomes.
Local infrastructure, such as abattoirs, has also been cut back, and the new, foreign-owned hypermarkets that dot the edges of Poland's cities buy much of their produce from cheaper factory farms abroad.
One of the junior coalition partners, the Peasants' Party, is dedicated to keeping such concerns in the public view.
But the government is also committed to joining the EU, if possible by 2004, and knows it will have to make many tough decisions during negotiations in the months ahead.
Many Poles concede that a future outside the European Union is not a viable option, despite the tough conditions that they will have to meet to make Poland ready.
There are also tough decisions to be made in other parts of the Polish economy, much of which dates back to the dark, inefficient days of communist industrialisation.
The giant chemical, steel and mining complexes clustered around the city of Katowice in Silesia, for instance, are not just inefficient - they also fail many EU environmental standards.
This is also causing concern among existing EU members - particularly those that have benefited in the past from generous funding from the regional development budget, such as Ireland, Portugal and Italy.
Negotiations over access to funds to help Poland and others hoping to join the EU to modernise promise to be tense.
There are, however, some signs of optimism for Poland.
Despite its current problems its economy grew impressively for much of the 1990s.
And with 40m people - one third of the total population of those countries hoping for EU membership by 2004 - it also represents a large and potentially lucrative market for companies to invest in.
Small farmers are also hopeful.
Szczepan Master thinks the solution may be to focus on high quality produce, and has applied for certification as an organic farm.
The farm is also involved in an agro-tourism project, and visitors can stay in the farmhouse and enjoy Helena Master's excellent home cooking for a handful of euros.
Such schemes will have to be successful in the future for the traditional way of life to continue in the Polish countryside.
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