Polish countryside sheds cliches over decade in EU

Regnow (Poland) (AFP) - Polish agriculture, which once evoked images of horse-drawn ploughs, has witnessed a transformation in the decade since Poland joined the EU and began benefitting from subsidies and the common market.

"During those days of the horse, we were a net importer of agricultural products," Polish Farm Minister Marek Sawicki told AFP.

"Now we're a huge exporter, with close to 20 billion euros worth of sales and a trade surplus of nearly six billion euros," he said, adding that 76 percent of Polish food exports now wind up in the EU.

Thanks to around 40 billion euros ($55 billion) of EU funding already received and another 42.4 billion euros in the pipeline for 2014-20, Polish agriculture is racing ahead.

According to Eurostat, real agricultural income per worker in Poland increased by nearly 70 percent between 2005 and 2013 -- way above the EU average of 29 percent growth.

"In 10 years, we doubled our poultry production. We increased our dairy production by 30 percent. We became the top producer of cultivated mushrooms, ahead of The Netherlands. We are the world's top exporter of apples," Sawicki said, rattling off achievements.

The central village of Regnow is one of Poland's agricultural hubs, where 48 fruit growers operate 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of orchards and boast a huge facility for sorting and storing apples, one of Poland's flagship agricultural products.

"It's the most modern facility of its kind in Europe," group president Roman Jagielinski said of the centre that cost around 50 million euros to build, three quarters of which the EU covered.

The centre is equipped with large cold rooms and a sophisticated system that sorts apples with the help of digital analysis.

The group will be able to sort and store up to 60,000 tonnes of apples a year once the facility is completed, a number they hope will eventually reach 100,000.

"You'll find our apples sold in cities from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Oslo to Athens," said Jagielinski, who was Poland's farm minister in the 1990s and whose bushy moustache recalls the old cliche of the Polish farmer.

- New disparities -

Ten years in the EU have brought not only structural changes but also significant disparities among the various farmsteads and regions in Poland.

Of around 1.4 million farms, a third remain too small to really benefit from EU funds, while some 250,000 of them account for 80 percent of Poland's agricultural production, according to Jagiellonian University sociologist Piotr Nowak.

"We have to find a solution for (small farmers) or they'll go bankrupt," Nowak said.

The average acreage of farmland has risen from barely 7.5 hectares to more than 10.5 (18 to 26 acres), according to farm ministry figures.

Despite a drop in the number of farmsteads and farmers, rural populations in general are up.

"The farmer's mindset has changed, as has that of the public as a whole. Until the early 2000s, agriculture was a problem to be solved," Sawicki said.

"Since then, farming itself has become a solution to other problems in Poland: it is agriculture, with its export potential, that creates jobs in agricultural processing and the service sector."

- Unthinkable 10 years ago -

Polish peasants were sceptical and even hostile to the idea of joining the EU. But today they are singing a different tune.

"The share of farmers with a positive view of the European Union is as high as 75 percent," said Jerzy Wilkin, an expert in agricultural economics at the University of Warsaw.

Jaroslaw Pyta, an apple grower from the central village of Franapol, has expanded his operation from eight to 28 hectares over the years.

"I've made use of all the EU aid programmes available to me. I installed a new sprinkler system, I bought equipment and redid my cold rooms," he said while waiting for a Russian truck to pick up a load of apples from the farm.

"I'm thinking we should look towards the Arab and African markets now -- something I never would have considered 10 years ago," he told AFP.

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