Farming: Stunted Hopes in Poland

Agricultural subsidies will be meager

Lech Labedzki was all for Poland joining the EU. "I was telling my friends both of my hands were raised, ready to vote for [it]," says the 48-year-old pepper grower from Grabowa, a village in south-central Poland. But then he read the fine print. Under the terms set by Brussels, Polish farmers will only be entitled to a fraction of the agricultural subsidies paid out to farmers in France or Spain. "It's a stab in the back," says Labedzki, a tall man with weather-beaten hands. When Poland holds a referendum on joining next year, he says, "I will vote against it."

Surveys show that a majority of Poles favor EU membership. But Labedzki's comments highlight a source of tension that will persist long after Poland and other Eastern European nations have made it into the club. The EU is as much a farm-subsidy machine as anything else. Subsidies keep farms in business, so when the handouts look skimpy, resentments start to simmer.

Such anger runs particularly deep in Poland. With some 2 million farms, its agricultural sector is the largest of any of the 10 nations up for EU membership. It employs 4.3 million people, yet contributes less than 3% to gross domestic product. Farming incomes have been falling since the collapse of Communism, and there are worries that EU membership will only hasten the decline.

Labedzki is one of the lucky ones. Although his annual earnings don't top $10,000, the father of four is comparatively well off. He drives a Toyota Carina and lives in a two-story, 10-room brick house. It stands next to the wooden cottage where Labedzki grew up--a daily reminder of how far this Polish family has come in the past decade. The key to their success is red peppers (or paprika in Polish). When Labedzki took over his father's 4-hectare potato farm in 1984, he switched to peppers. Today, his land is dotted with plastic greenhouses that yield a 36-ton harvest each year. "Our paprika is very juicy and healthy," says Labedzki proudly.

Nevertheless, Labedzki, like other Polish farmers, understands that he needs EU subsidies to compete. Farms in Poland average between 4 and 8 hectares, compared with 32 in Germany. One oft-cited fear is that once Poland joins the EU, German agro-industrialists will snap up the best land. In the area around Grabowa, one hectare goes for about $5,000, says Labedzki, compared with more than $15,000 a hectare in the German state of Saxony.

That's the fear articulated by populist politicians and hard-core Euro-skeptics. The most prominent member of this crew is Andrzej Lepper, a 50-year-old farmer who heads the rural Self Defence Alliance, Poland's second-largest political party. Lepper charges that bureaucrats in charge of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy are trying to shortchange farmers in Eastern Europe, who will not be eligible for full subsidies until 2013.

While that's a valid concern, Lepper and his party may have blurred the line between politics and scaremongering. Labedzki, for one, believes predictions that Poland will be flooded by farm imports from Western Europe are overblown. "The transport cost will make them more expensive here," he explains. But he does worry that without enough subsidies, he'll never crack foreign markets. "We will have to adjust to EU conditions," he says. That doesn't mean the farmers will like it.

By Bogdan Turek in Grabowa

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