Images of antiquated horse carriages going down country lanes often accompany articles about Poland. Poles often get frustrated when their country is illustrated by symbols of backwardness, which is understandable considering the country has been undergoing rapid modernisation and economic growth over the past 20 years. Today Poland is the EU’s sixth largest economy – it was the only EU country to avoid negative GDP growth during the global recession – and it continues to be one of the EU’s fastest growing regions.
In the past few years, however, idyllic pictures of horse carriages and fields are viewed less as a sign of Polish underdevelopment, and more as its embracing of environmentally friendly farming – a movement that is becoming increasingly appealing to Western consumers and which may become more associated with Poland as its agricultural industry continues to develop its organic sector.
Recipe for success
“There are three main features that characterise the Polish agricultural sector: the dominance of small-scale farms, the relatively low use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and over-employment,” says Krzysztof Maciejewski, professor at the Poznań University of Economics. According to Mr Maciejewski, one of the main disadvantages of Polish farming is the small farm sizes, but the two other factors could help transform a significant portion of the industry towards organic production.
The low use of pesticides is a traditional feature of Polish farming. As for employment, when Poland joined the EU in 2004, the agricultural labour force per 100 hectares was estimated at 15.6%, while in Germany it was 5% and in the UK 2%. The high proportion of Polish workers in agriculture could be seen as problematic, but at the same time organic farming is more labour-intensive, so the ready availability of workers could prove to be advantageous to this emerging sector.
Interest in organic farming began to take root in Poland in the 1980s, but farmers who wanted to convert their production into eco-friendly ventures did not receive support from the Polish authorities. At that time, eco-friendly farming was on the margins of Poland’s agricultural sector.
Ekoland, the first Polish organic farmers’ association, was established in 1989, and by the following year it had granted organic certification to 27 farms. By 1995, that number had grown to 262. Since the mid-1990s, the number of green farms has grown rapidly, thanks to state subsidies and, in recent years, to EU agri-environmental programmes. After Polish accession to the EU, the number of Polish agri-farms mushroomed across the country. In 2003, the state supported 1287 organic farms and 23 accredited food-processing plants. By 2008, this had increased to more than 13,500 certified farms. Between 2005 and 2008, organic farmland by area increased by 94% in Poland, the highest increase among the 27 EU member states.
So why have so many Polish farmers decided to go green? It seems their decisions have been based on economics and balance-sheet common sense, rather than a desire to latch on to fashionable trends. Polish farmers understood that joining the EU meant they had to fight, both on the domestic as well as international markets, for consumers’ minds and money. At the moment, there is strong demand for artisanal, local specialties that have been produced using traditional methods in facilities that meet modern-day standards. Organic farming is making good business sense.
“The fact that products marketed as ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ sell becomes clear at the international food fairs. Foreign customers are really interested in products such as regional varieties of Polish honey or cheese and different kinds of cold meats,” says Dariusz Mamiński, a staffer at the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Poznań University’s Mr Maciejewski adds that products with the 'traditional' and 'organic' labels appeal not only to foreign customers, but also have a growing charm for Polish customers. “Joining the EU meant Polish food producers had easier access to foreign markets, but foreign producers had fewer barriers selling to the Polish market,” says Mr Maciejewski. “Polish and foreign producers discovered that consumers want to buy food products made using traditional recipes and from ingredients grown without fertilisers. Now even foreign exporters are trying to sell their products under the Polish [organic] labels,” says Mr Maciejewski. This clearly shows that food products are selling when they are organic… and Polish.
A mark of quality
The Polish government began supporting organic farming after it realised that the problem of over-employment in Polish agriculture could be solved by investing in the labour-intensive organic sector. “A substantial part of our fund is spent on research on organic farming. In 2004, it was 3.2m zlotys [$1.1m] and by 2010 the sum had increased to 4.5m zlotys,” says Mr Maciejewski. “We have also launched many initiatives to promote Polish products, both on the domestic and international markets, one of the most successful being the Try Fine Food [PDŻ] quality mark.”
Over the six years since its launch, the PDŻ programme led the way in establishing programmes to improve consumer awareness of food quality issues. The Try Fine Food quality mark, which is granted by Poland's Scientific Committee for the Quality of Food Products, is only awarded to those producers that meet strict sanitary and manufacturing standards.
“PDŻ’s characteristic red logo helps customers to choose high-quality Polish food while, for the producers, it is an important way to stand out on store shelves,” says Joanna Pietrusiewicz from the communication and promotion department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. “PDŻ’s logo is a way to convince producers that investing their money and efforts into producing high-quality food pays dividends. The fact that, according to our recent survey, 40% of respondents knew the PDŻ logo speaks for itself.”
Ground for optimism
There is no doubt that Polish agriculture is undergoing rapid and much-needed transformation and organic farming could be the niche that underlies the success of such a transformation. Rural Poland is certainly not the picture of doom and gloom that it used to be 20 years ago. There is lot of ground to be cultivated in Poland, as well as a lot of ground for optimism and, with the help of Polish authorities working closely with Brussels, Polish farmers are looking to the future with optimism.
In 2001, almost half of Polish farmers expressed a lack of confidence about competing in EU markets, according to a survey by the Center on Public Opinion Research. However, in 2007, three years after Poland’s EU accession, 76% of Polish farmers opted for words including 'hope', 'joy' and 'pride' in relation to Poland’s EU membership, according to a poll by Pentor Research International.
The rise in Polish farmers’ confidence can be explained by the large subsidies granted to rural Poland by the EU, but the benefits reaped from ongoing agricultural change are also a contributory factor. With positive attitudes and the development of programmes promoting Poland’s organic farming, formerly marginalised farmers have good reason to feel optimistic.