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Polish farmers: more rubber boots, more skepticism

Polish television has been showing factories working furiously to produce more rubber boots for farmers. That's because last year most of Poland's 4 million individual peasant farmers had to make do without any new boots at all. The few boots that were available went to workers on the big state farms, although they account for only 20 percent of the farm population.

Though farmers may be cheered by the prospect of having the appropriate footgear, they are nonetheless skeptical about many features in the agricultural program the government recently introduced.

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The plan to modernize agriculture and reach self-sufficiency in food by 1985 envisages:

* At least a 20 percent increase in production of farm equipment - from small hand tools to heavy machinery - including delivery of at least 175,000 tractors by 1985.

* Larger appropriations for agriculture and the related food-farming industries. This sector may receive as much as one-third of Poland's total investment outlay over the next three years.

* A new system of prices and taxes to guarantee private farmers stable conditions and profitability.

* Expansion of rural amenities and services to reduce the gap in living standards between town and country and, it is hoped, stem the drift of young people from the land.

The goal of self-sufficiency in food by 1985 is a big order. Between 1970 and 1980 Poland's grain imports increased fourfold, totaling more than 9 million tons. The crisis that erupted in August 1980 put an end to such extravagant imports.

The peasants are uneasy about the tax proposal. Economists insist that taxing private farmers as well as the big state farms is necessary to combat inflation, which may exceed 30 percent this year, and to absorb the millions of unspent zlotys in the pockets of private farmers.

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Half of the grain imports of the 1970s, said Minister of Agriculture Stanislaw Zieba, were the direct consequence of unfulfilled promises by successive governments to provide adequate industrial production for agricultural needs. But uncertainties about the private sector's profitability drove many people from the land, thus reducing agricultural manpower.

The peasants were recently given an assurance that a parliamentary committee will soon draft a constitutional amendment to guarantee private land ownership. Rural Solidarity - the farmers' union - had demanded guarantees of tenure, and its demands were recognized in legislation a year ago. But the peasants want them written into the Constitution as protection against any future extension of the state sector.

One of the most formidable obstacles to the production of more food may well be the peasants' skepticism about the government's sincerity regarding the new policy. They have heard promises about modernization before - and pledges that they would receive all the fertilizer and machinery they need.

Yet an ideological bias against the private sector has persisted when it comes time to distribute such materials and equipment.

Under the strains of martial-law rationing, the Communist Party press has frequently accused individual farmers of being unpatriotic, of hoarding and speculation to force higher farm prices, and of refusing to turn more of their production over to the lean and meager state market.

Most of the charges were unfair. Polityka - the weekly magazine that was recently under fire from Moscow because of its often independent line - has said that the blame lies with the authorities' failure to provide farmers with adequate supplies of such basic tools as spades, let alone the equipment needed to modernize a sector where horse-drawn plows are still common.

This failure was graphically illustrated recently when the newspaper Rzeczpospolita answered an official claim that there are 650,000 tractors in Poland. Almost half of them, it said, were idle for lack of spare parts, or obsolete and fit only for scrap.

For years, Polish agriculture has been hindered by shifting official attitudes as well as neglect. Only last year there was a revival of old hard-line talk about a return to obligatory deliveries to make the peasants sell more of their grain to the state. That suggestion was dropped.

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