By Tom Garrett
On March 10, Agnes Van Volkenburgh and I traveled to the ancient Czech city of Prague with Samoobrona Chairman Andrzej Lepper for a meeting of farm unions and agrarian parties from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Cyprus and Estonia. The meeting, catalyzed by a European Union ultimatum that countries seeking E.U. membership "modernize" their "agriculture sectors" by eliminating peasant farmers, began at Prague University on the 11th. By the end of the day the participants had agreed to strengthen farmers' defenses by forming a European Democratic Rural Union (EDRU) of agrarian parties.
On the following morning, a committee convened to draft the guiding principles of the proposed alliance. Lepper, preoccupied with events in Poland, assigned Agnes (who is his animal welfare consultant) to negotiate for Samoobrona. I was seated as her "adviser" and we brought the session to an impasse by proposing language on environmental protection, animal welfare and clean food. The Czechs objected with particular vehemence. But when Lepper, with his indefinable sense of force, came to the table to ask what the problem was, opposition disintegrated. The final language of the memorandum has the EDRU striving for "preservation of natural environment in the broadest possible sense, increasing production of natural food supply and promoting humane farming methods."
Whether this rather startling victory will survive the formal inauguration of the new union (probably in October) remains to be seen. Farm animal welfare has never before appeared in a central European political platform.
On March 15, Agnes and I joined Lepper in Warsaw for two more defining events. One, which put to the test our effort to form a peasant-ecologist alliance, was a Samoobrona-led demonstration at the U.S. and German embassies protesting foreign takeover of Polish assets. Fortunately, by the time we reached the main gate of the U.S. Embassy, "locked down" and guarded by scores of Interior Ministry troops wearing black ski masks and carrying sub-machineguns, parties of ecologists had arrived and hoisted their banners. Later, at a boisterous AWI sponsored luncheon of farmers and ecologists, Lepper sat with Green Federation head Olaf Swolkien and other ecologists to hammer out a working alliance. The cover of the latest Green Brigades journal pictures Swolkien and Lepper standing beneath a Green Federation banner.
We also met with Adam Tanski, head of the State Farm Property Agency (AWRS), the agency established to privatize the 20% of Polish farmland that was incorporated into state farms. Tanski came quickly to the point. "I have seen in your video how you raise hogs in Iowa," Tanski said. "I would like to begin this kind of husbandry on state farms. If you can provide the technical expertise we need to convert to your system, and help us to establish markets, I can supply the land, the buildings and the people. We have 40,000 unemployed former state farm workers who need something to do." We assured Tanski that we would bring a team of experts to Poland as soon as possible.
On May 15, Agnes flew to Warsaw to complete arrangements for a small AWI sponsored peasant-ecologist conference. She was joined on the 18th by AWI's Farm Animal Advisor Diane Halverson, Iowa farmer and Niman Ranch coordinator Paul Willis, Minnesota farmer Dwight Ault, AWI's Greek International committee member Dr. Theo Antikas, and Ionos Tsironis, the head of the Greek Hog Farmers Union.
The conference, on May 19th and 20th, attracted not only farmers and ecologists, but a substantial cadre of Polish veterinarians. After hearing a powerful presentation by American Riverkeepers' Kevin Madonna on the hog factory disaster in North Carolina, Dr. Bartosz Winiecki, President of the Polish Veterinary Chamber, denounced industrial hog raising and pledged to mobilize Polish veterinarians against a Smithfield takeover. Winiecki praised the AWI/Niman Ranch system and said that he wants to bring a delegation of Polish vets to the U.S. to see it first hand.
Unfortunately, the AWI team's arrival in Poland coincided with an acute crisis within Poland's unstable governing coalition. While we were able to tour state farms in northeastern and central Poland, the planned "nuts and bolts" session with Tanski did not eventuate. Tanski, like other government politicians, was caught up in the scramble trying to keep the foundering coalition afloat. It was not until after the rest of us had returned home that Agnes, who remained in Poland an additional week, was able to meet Mr. Perycz, Tanski's deputy, and learn what the AWRS now has in mind.
"If AWI will prepare and translate a brochure with text and pictures explaining what must be done to qualify for the program and why it is profitable to raise pigs in that way" Perycz told Agnes, "AWRS will bear the costs of printing it. We will distribute it to existing state farms and to everyone who is raising pigs on land being leased from us. Then we will collect the names of farmers who are interested in converting and transmit them to you. If you can then investigate on a case by case basis and prepare a blueprint for converting each farm, we will bear the costs of conversion." Perycz made it clear, however, that his agency would only approve conversions if humanely raised pork could be effectively marketed.
In a last minute blitz, Agnes traveled to Poznan with Andrzej Lepper, spoke at a press conference and visited a private farmer —already raising pigs humanely on deep straw—who is anxious to convert to the AWI system. The Samoobrona office in Poznan has received numerous inquiries from farmers who have seen the AWI video and want to adopt the AWI system. On her final day in Warsaw, Agnes attended a meeting of the Polish Ecological Farming Association, which is involved in marketing Polish organic produce. Its President, Professor Gorny, immediately volunteered to help set up channels for distributing humanely raised pork. It devolved that Gorny was already in conflict with Animex, but that he did not realize that it had been taken over by Smithfield and was being used as the bridgehead for a full-scale invasion.
The next step for AWI is to complete the brochure requested by AWRS. Agnes has already arranged for it to be distributed by Samobroona and by the Polish Federation of Agricultural Employees as well as AWRS and to be reprinted in Trzoda Chlewna, the Polish pig raisers journal. In the meantime, Mr. Tsironis has decided to set up a demonstration project conforming to AWI standards on his property in Greece and has suggested that the brochure be translated into Greek for distribution by his union. As an example of the serendipity inherent in international gatherings, Tsironis has resolved to set up a peasants self defense network, modeled on Samoobroona, in Greece, Cyprus and Macedonia.