By Tom Garrett
John Steinbeck once wrote that family farmers are "the soul and the guts of this nation or of any other nation."
This can be nowhere truer than in Poland. Since Polish peasants armed with scythes overran Russian artillery at Raclawice during the Kosciuszko uprising of 1793, Poland's most stubborn defenders have been found in the countryside. In the 19th Century, under leaders such as Jacob Szulic, the Polish peasantry threw off serfdom. Their obdurate resistance halted Stalinist attempts, between 1949-54, to consolidate Polish agriculture into state farms. Poland emerged from Communism in 1990 with 80% of its farmland still in private hands and well over a quarter of the population engaged in farming.
Today, having survived Communism, Poland's peasants, standing athwart the juggernaut of corporate globalization, face a far more implacable enemy. The worldwide crash in grain and hog prices, compounded by a flood of cheap imports from the European Union's highly subsidized agriculture, has left Poland's farmers in a desperate plight, creating what Andrew Nagorski, writing in Newsweek International, calls "a bumper crop of despair." Far from coming to Polish farmers' defense, the country's deeply unpopular coalition government has capitulated to E.U. demands to "modernize" Polish agriculture as a price for admission. Agricultural Minister Artur Balasz has announced that the number of Polish farms, in accordance with E.U. requirements, must be reduced from two million to 800,000 by 2003. How will 1.2 million farm families be removed from the land in three years? The answer, beyond the screen of persiflage, seems brutally simple: To maintain an economic climate in which "weaker" farmers cannot survive economically.
As Polish farms suffer what farm wife Ewa Blieska, quoted in Newsweek, calls a "slow death," the great transnational agribusiness corporations, like vultures settling beside a wounded animal, are entering the country. Chicken factories similar to those that swept the U.S. in the 1960s are taking root in western Poland, pushing out peasant producers. Early last year (see AWI Fall-Winter Quarterly) the world's largest "pork production"
company began a drive to take over pork production in Poland. Ignoring warnings by the farm unions, Smithfield is moving aggressively to bring the vertically integrated system that has destroyed family agriculture in states such as Virginia (where Smithfield now owns 95% of all hogs raised) and North Carolina, to Poland. Smithfield Chief counsel Richard Poulson, predicts that Animex, Smithfield's Polish subsidiary, will become Europe's largest pork production company with sales in excess of one billion dollars annually.
In Poland, where virtually every farm — no matter how small — raises a few pigs, the corporate drive poises a dagger at the heart of private farming. For pigs, and for the cause of animal welfare, the implications are horrifying. Today, most of Poland's 18 million pigs are raised in the traditional, relatively humane way, in pastures or on straw, able to interact socially and carry out normal motor patterns. If corporate hog factories supplant family farms, the lives of sows, imprisoned wretchedly in steel crates, will become a parabola of misery and the ghastly American syndrome — miasmic "lagoons", dumpsters overflowing with bloated carcasses-will spread across eastern and central Europe. If it cannot be stopped in Poland, there is no chance of stopping it in countries like Belarus (where Smithfield is rumored to be negotiating) and the Ukraine.
On January 17, Agnes Van Volkenburgh, "Slaughterhouse" author Gail Eisnitz and I arrived in Warsaw for the Congress of Peasant-National Bloc, an alliance of Samoobrona with independent trade unions and small political parties, and for the opening of Andrzej Lepper's counterattack against Smithfield. The following morning, we walked through a gathering crowd into the monumental Kongressa Hall of Warsaw's huge, Stalinist era Palace of Culture and Science and were seated in the front row. While folk troupes from the Carpathian and Bieszczady Mountains performed on the stage, thousands of delegates to the Congress — peasants from across Poland, coal miners in black uniforms, pensioners, military veterans aligned with General Tadeuzs Wilicki's National Front — took their seats. We stood for the Polish National Anthem, which begins "While we live Poland shall not die". Then Lepper rose to speak. After a blistering attack on economic policies that have led to 14% unemployment and a fire sale of state owned assets to foreigners, he turned to the plight of Poland's peasants. He dwelled movingly on animal welfare, contrasting peasant farming where each farm animal is named and newborn young are brought into family homes in cold weather, with the mass, mindless cruelty of industrial agriculture. Our turn came after a recess. Agnes spoke briefly and eloquently, gaining thunderous applause. With Agnes translating, I explained what has happened to family farming in America and what lies in store for Poland if Smithfield is allowed to take over. Gail then recounted the appalling situation in American slaughterhouses.
We spent January 19th in Warsaw, meeting government officials and environmentalists. Before dawn on the 20th we joined Andrzej Lepper for a trip to northwestern Poland, lunching with agricultural bankers and touring a small slaughterhouse en route. In Czluchow, the town's meeting hall was packed with hundreds of farmers waiting for Lepper. The farmers heard Lepper out. Then, for two hours, angry, desperate, sometimes despairing, they poured forth their troubles. There was much talk about hog factories since a Danish firm, Poldanor, has a permit to build a 300,000 feeder pig complex not far away.
January 21 dawned with snow and sleet. We drove westward on roads lined with Lombardy poplar through a part of Poland that was once German territory and had witnessed still another trail of tears when the German population was driven out in 1945. In late morning, we reached the ancient city of Szczecin, on the Odra River which forms today's German border and pulled up in front of the Smithfield owned AGRYF slaughterhouse. Farmers carrying Samoobrona signs were waiting, the press had arrived. Lepper led us to the entrance where a row of faces peered through the glass. At this point, the manager, acting out his own version of Polish bravado, came outside without a coat and stood for an hour in the bitter wind, shivering violently and arguing, before the press, with the infuriated farmers. The problem, it seemed, was that AGRYF, true to the attitude of its corporate masters, was refusing to buy small lots of hogs because they "lacked uniformity". Lepper finally heard enough. "Listen well" he said. "If there is any more of this I am coming back to shut you down."
The next stop was in downtown Szczecin where we met with the local farmers cooperative (which has a minority interest in the Agury plant) to discuss the Smithfield takeover. Then, in a cold, sleeting rain, we went to see a hog factory left over from Communist times at a state farm 20 miles or so outside the city. We passed the workers' quarters, a five story apartment building positioned, incongruously, in a muddy field. But when we reached the hog factory the gates were padlocked and the sole person in attendance was the office manager. Word had come earlier in the day, she said, for the crew to lock everything and leave. The basic operational features, open cesspools and spray fields, seemed similar to U.S. hog factories. "In the summertime the smell hereabout is almost unendurable" one of the farmers said. "As for dead hogs, they dump them in a sump in the woods. The flies practically darken the sun." The last stop in Szczecin was to call on Marian Jurczyk, a towering figure of the anti-communist resistance and bitter rival of Lech Walesa, at the twilight of his political career. Jurczyk, receiving us in his imposing office, announced that he would resign as Mayor of Szczecin the following week.
Six inches of snow fell in the night. We left before dawn, driving south through a hushed and peaceful countryside. Morning revealed the Odra valley and a sweep of marshlands and floodplain forests. The tracts of forest and open space in northwestern Poland, contrasting with the patchwork of small farms often found elsewhere, are a legacy of numerous landed estates which, with the expulsion of their German owners, remained intact as state farms. We stopped for lunch at an ecotourism resort maintained by one of Lepper's supporters. Hours of tortuous night driving on snow-packed roads brought us to Warsaw, and at noon of the 22nd, after a harried morning of press interviews and meetings with environmentalists, we said goodbye to our friends and returned to the United States.
What has AWI accomplished thus far? Three thousand copies of a forty-minute video developed by Diane Halverson and narrated in Polish by Agnes Van Volkenburgh were delivered to Samoobrona and other Polish NGOs. The tapes are based around the Polish September tour, but they contain additional footage from hog factories and aerial coverage of the North Carolina floods. Along with written material, translated by Agnes, they have been distributed across Poland providing the sinew for a press and media campaign. Excerpts from the tapes have appeared on two Polish cable channels and numerous television stations. The March 10 issue of Nie (circulation 800,000) contains a scathing attack on Smithfield quoting AWI extensively. A similar article appeared in the daily paper Nasz Dziennik. The breakthroughs on radio, which is more important in Poland than in the U.S., have been dramatic. Agnes and Lepper were featured on TOK FM, Poland's main talk radio station. Appearing on Radio Zet, which is the most listened to-station in the country, Agriculture Minister Artur Balasz was asked whether he supported Lepper or Smithfield in the battle over pig factories. In a startling turnaround, Balasz announced that he supported Lepper and that pig factories cannot be tolerated in Poland.
In the Polish countryside, Samoobrona's campaign against Smithfield and other multinationals is gaining force. On February 8, for example, 2000 farmers gathered to protest Cargill's failure to pay farmers on time for deliveries of grain. Concurrently, a campaign led by Rural Solidarity head, Roman Wierbicki, has succeeded in blocking a giveaway of Poland's sugar processing capacity to foreign companies. On March 6, farmers will "send a message" by blockading roads and highways for three hours all across Poland. Meantime, an alliance is coalescing between the peasants and the Polish environmentalists. It will have its first test when humane and environmental groups from throughout Poland send cadres to Warsaw to participate in Samoobrona-led protests at German, Danish and U.S. Embassies on March 14.
The Polish campaign has opened the door for AWI to carry its message, that mass abuse of animals is the core evil of industrial agriculture, to an ever wider audience. Agnes and I have been invited to address a Congress of Peasant Parties from ten eastern and central European nations in Prague on March 11. On March 26, we will address the World Congress of Trade Unions in New Delhi, India. In attendance will be the leaders of India's 30 million member peasant unions who have given the agribusiness giant, Monsanto, vector of "genetically modified" seeds, an ultimatum to leave India.