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Ripe for Corporate Picking

Will there still be room for low-impact agriculture in the new Europe?

By Jennifer Hattam

In the 1930s, the United States was a nation of farmers, with a quarter of American workers living off the land. Since then, their ranks have dwindled steadily, now numbering less than 1 percent. The agricultural way of life still thrives in Poland, employing 20 percent of the population. Most of the country’s 2 million farms are family operations with less than 20 acres. But like their American counterparts, small farmers in Poland are fast becoming an endangered species.

When their country joins the European Union, as it is poised to do in 2004, Polish farmers will face increased competition with cheap food imports from larger, highly subsidized operations in western Europe. As in the United States, the EU’s agricultural subsidies encourage mechanized and chemically intensive monocultures–and spell disaster for small-scale farmers.

Since Portugal entered the EU in 1986, its farm workforce has dropped by a third. In Britain, 15,000 farmers leave the land each year, and those who remain have seen their incomes fall drastically. Poland may need to take 1.2 million farmers off the land to become competitive on the international market, a move that would drastically alter its rural culture.

"In Poland, we have a long tradition of agriculture that protects biodiversity, food quality, and the way of life in small communities," says Jadwiga Lopata, an organic farmer from the Kraków area and cofounder of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside. "Most people living in the big city also have relatives in the country, so there’s a lot of connection between farmers and consumers."

The coalition is building support for community and environmental interests in the EU’s agriculture-related negotiations with Poland, which are expected to be completed this year. Lopata is also helping Polish farmers convert to organic methods by starting sustainable sidelines. So far 130 "eco-farms" (family farms that are already organic or in transition) have opened up to visitors and now earn an average of 20 percent of their income from tourism. In April, Lopata’s efforts won her the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots activists from around the world. And her growing group of allies thinks that the course she’s charting in Poland might be a model for Europe as a whole. But any revisions to the EU’s agricultural rules will likely be slowed by controversy and bureaucracy. Will Poland’s rural culture still be alive to show the way?

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