[dropcap]P[/dropcap]oles were quick to rally behind a social media campaign to “eat Polish apples”, a tongue-in-cheek response to Russia’s banning imports of apples and other food products from Poland.
Yet the reality is that many of the apples eaten in Poland these days in defiance of Putin are pesticide-intensive products of large-scale conventional farming. Of the country’s 1,800,000 farms, only 26,000 are certified organic (out of these, just 300 vegetable producers have the certificate). This year, Polish authorities cut subsidies for organic orchards, which could potentially lead to the felling of some of the country’s few orchards where diverse old Polish varieties are grown.
“We can clearly say that the Polish authorities are not supporting organic farming,” says Priwieziencew, who together with her partner Tomasz Wloszczowski owns a 6 hectare plot of land on which they grow organic vegetables; of that surface, 2.7 ha are covered by a young orchard with 400 high growing fruit trees, mostly apples, but also pears, plums and cherries of over 40 old traditional varieties. “This year, they cut subsidies for organic orchards. According to the new regulations, you can only get financial help if you have 800 fruit trees per hectare, which is only possible if the trees are the small equally shaped ones grown by conventional fruit producers. Our fruit trees are tall and diverse, because they represent different varieties, so we just have 200 per hectare.”
[quote align=’left’]“For five years, we received subsidies for this orchard, which was very good, but now they suddenly stopped them, and this could force people to cut the orchards because they can no longer afford to finance the work. This is really stupid.”[/quote] Priwieziencew became a farmer in 2009, after years of working in Fundacja Agrinatura and other NGOs to promote organic agriculture among Polish farmers and improve farming policies in Poland. When speaking about farming in Poland, she highlights the paradox of having a government which makes policies meant for large-scale farming when most of the country’s almost 2 million farms are small. More excerpts from the interview with the activist and farmer follow.
Claudia Ciobanu: If we look beyond the orchards example, how difficult is it for organic farmers to survive and develop in Poland?
Sonia Priwieziencew: I can give another example of a measure that was taken recently: cutting subsidies for organic farms which have more than 50 hectares. I disagree with this measure too because the problem in Poland is that we simply do not have enough organic product out there, it is not enough for having processed organic produce (juices, jams, etc.) for instance which could be sold in shops. If they cut subsidies for bigger organic farms, there will never be enough produce out there to develop a market for processed organic products.
On top of that, the legal situation is not really helping the people who do very small food processing, at home for instance, because there are too many standards they have to apply. So on the one hand you don’t allow bigger organic food processing to happen, and on the other hand you don’t help the small ones, so we will never have organic food in the shops and restaurants in Poland.
Is access to markets a problem for organic producers?
In general, what I have seen is that most organic producers do manage to find places to sell their merchandise and this is because, as I have said, there is not enough organic produce out there. So producers of fresh vegetables manage to find ways in general.
But where we have a serious problem is with getting processed organic products to shops. For example, we do not have organic milk in our shops and that’s not because we don’t have this milk produced, but because we don’t have organic dairies and those we don’t have because the producers are too spread out and too small and so the transport costs are too big to get to the dairies who can process and pack it. There is one organic dairy in south of Poland now, I think, but not more.
Authorities certainly need to help out with this, by making it easier for smaller processing businesses to exist, and by increasing subsidies for organic farms, not reducing them, as it happens now.
Navigating the administrative part in order to access subsidies is also quite complicated. If you make any mistake, you have to pay a fine, and this can be really discouraging. Sometimes the effect is that the state punishes innocent people for just making mistakes. The procedures in place for distributing subsidies are not matched to the reality of our farming, which is made up of so many small farms.
Finally, another obstacle for farmers who want to do certified organic farming is access to organic seeds, which are very difficult to get not in the least because in the EU the selling of these seeds among farmers is illegal (it is legal to exchange seeds among farmers, but not their sale by non-registered seed companies; last year, an attempt was made to make illegal also the exchanges but following a strong NGO campaign this initiative was blocked by the EU Parliament).
[quote align=’right’]If you make any mistake, you have to pay a fine, and this can be really discouraging.[/quote]The seeds on the market in all EU and also in Poland are mostly controlled by big corporations and you can find no variety, but just one type of tomato, one type of cucumber, etc. So there is the problem of lack of variety of seeds, and then there is the issue of seeds being produced in a non-organic way which means that seeds are already with chemicals in the packets, they’re already sprayed with anti-fungus chemicals, and so on, which have an impact on the plant’s DNA, the plant’s immune system is already affected from the start.
The organic certification system is forcing farmers to fight to find good seeds or produce them themselves, which is good, but we also should find ways to make it easier for them by establishing an organic seed bank.
Why do you think Polish authorities take these kinds of measures, are they incompetent or do they serve the interests of big conventional farming?
When we asked the ministry of agriculture why they are cutting subsidies for organic orchards, they said they did it because some people abused the system. But it is really silly to destroy the whole system just because some people use it the wrong way! They have to include safeguards to ensure no abuses happen, but not destroy everything.
I really think the thinking in Brussels and in Poland is that there are too many farmers out there. They might say that they want to help small farmers but they really don’t believe small farmers can make a living out of the land so they think the small ones should quit, sell the farm, and leave space for the big ones. Of course with 1,800,000 farms in Poland, most of which are small ones, our politicians can’t really explicitly say “we don’t want you” but this is what they actually doing. At the ministry, they brag about making a promotional film about organic farmers. Everyone can make a film about that, but what they have to do at the ministry is to give money to support organic agriculture as a system, and then NGOs can make movies and campaigns.
When it comes to wrong policies, this is also a question of lobby. You know, the small farmers in Poland are many, but they are not united, they do not understand the policies and they do not know how to lobby. The big ones have money and can pay people to do the lobby.
Have there been any attempts to organise the small farmers in Poland to push for their rights? Why is such mobilisation not taking place visibly?
There has been a lot of thinking put into this, but it is hard even to get the organic farmers organised, not to mention all of the small farmers. It is just hard to get farmers united and this has to do with Polish history, our psychology, our suspicion about the notion of cooperation. But Polish small farmers should definitely unite before they cease to exist. If they united, being so many, they would really be a force. How to do it, I don’t know yet.
What I have been observing since living in the country side is the negative impact of bad educational policies. The educational process seems to be worsening so much in this country that you are even tempted to think they are making people stupid on purpose! The problem with Polish farmers not having proper education is that they cannot get organised and ask for their rights, know how to do lobby, etc. Lately, I have been increasingly thinking about the need for good education for farmers so as to give a chance to this sector. I was shocked to learn that in Polish gymnasiums there is only one hour of geography per week – and that includes learning about the world today, economy – but there are two hours of religion.
The oldest Polish farmers still have a good knowledge of how to work the land in harmony with nature, but they are getting older and older. The younger farmers, between 25 and 45, only know about conventional, intensive farming.
So there is a lot of knowledge about sustainable farming that is being lost without being replaced.
Precisely. Because right now there is no teaching about organic farming for farmers in Poland. If you meet organic farmers in our villages, they have often learnt the skills abroad, in Switzerland and elsewhere. As part of one of our projects at Agrinatura, we tried to introduce organic farming as a subject of study in agriculture schools. Maybe in some schools now they have some short courses, but nothing more than that, while at the same time they do learn a lot about agribusiness.
The picture you paint, from national policies to the potential for political mobilisation of small and organic farmers is pretty bleak, but at the same time you still think there might be a bright future for Polish farming…
Yes, because small farming and biodiversity represent the right way forward. Even more, with climate change, this is not only the right way, but the only way. And lately, we do see increasing awareness about the potential of small sustainable farming to feed the world.
Over the past years, we are seeing more and more initiatives in Poland that link consumers directly to organic or small producers such as food cooperatives in various cities, a cooperative shop that just opened in Warsaw, or the Community Supported Agriculture* model your farm is a part of. Do you see a lot of potential in these initiatives?
I am seeing interest from both producers and consumers for the CSA model, and it is definitely a viable model for farmers so I think it can spread. It could play a role in supporting farm biodiversity because consumers buy different types of vegetables and products in this scheme, and it could also help to spread the certified organic model, which is only marginally developed in Poland today.
[quote align=’left’]You know, the small farmers in Poland are many, but they are not united, they do not understand the policies and they do not know how to lobby[/quote]One of the big problems we have nowadays is that the price paid for food to the producer is just too small. Food is cheap because it is produced by big companies which do not pay people, pollute, plus they receive subsidies. So the tomato in the shop is cheap, but this is only possible because of externalization of costs, and this should not happen, the tomato in the shop should not be cheap, the price should reflect the real costs. When we have a tomato that is produced in the right way, of course it costs a bit more than what is now on supermarket shelves.
When I speak to farmers, they find it hard to believe that consumers from the city would be willing to pay more for their products, if they are produced well. So we will have to overcome this issue of a generalised lack of trust. But indeed what is really important in the CSA model is that the farmers see their work being recognised by the consumers: the consumers can come to the farm and see how hard work it is to produce vegetables and then they are ready to pay the price demanded by the producer, who is then encouraged to play fair and use only organic means.
*Community Supported Agriculture or Rolnictwo Wspierane przez Spolecznosc (RWS) is a scheme whereby a group of consumers pledge to support a local farmer by paying for products at the start of the season and committing thus to accept the produce as they come, regardless if the quantity or quality gets a little affected by random events like the weather. Once harvesting begins, consumers get weekly deliveries. They often volunteer on the farm. In Poland, Sonia Priwieziencew and Tomasz Wloszczowski’s farm is part of the first RWS created in Warsaw as a pilot in 2012 and which is now in its third season. In 2014, three other RWS schemes have been launched in Warsaw, Poznan and Szczeczin and more are being planned for the next year.
Interview by Claudia Ciobanu, Romanian freelance reporter based in Warsaw. Photo by Mike Haller, cc, flickr.com