Poland's organic farms prove to be fruitful ventures
Economic growth, tradition, even Soviet policies make the nation well-suited for the industry.
Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Zdunska Wola, Poland
Eighteen years ago, Boguslaw Klimczak had a barn with 20 cows and a line of patient customers every morning: The farmer in this small town in central Poland sold his locally produced cheeses out of the trunk of his car at the local farmer's market. Now Mr. Klimczak drives a Nissan SUV, and his company, with 3 million zlotys ($1.2 million) in sales per year, has its own distribution network sending fresh butter, cream, yogurt, and cheeses – made according to traditional Polish recipes – to stores across Poland, and without European Union subsidies to boot.
With strong economic growth in recent years – and a projected expansion of the economy by 5.4 percent this year according to numbers released by Poland's central bank this week – Poles have begun looking for alternatives to the factory farm produce available on supermarket shelves. Farmers have responded by growing the country's organic farming industry, a niche market for which the nation is particularly well-suited.
The number of organic farms in Poland has burgeoned during the past 12 years, from 300 in 1996 to some 13,500 today, according to EkoConnect, a German nonprofit think tank that studies organic agriculture. EkoConnect defines organic farming broadly as farming that works with nature instead of against it.
Farming has always been a small-scale enterprise in Poland, the only former Soviet satellite country to resist agricultural collectivization under communism. Nothing of the farm consolidation that occurred in the United States happened here, a plus for Polish farmers who today wish to certify their farms as organic.
"The structure of agriculture in Poland, where the average size of a farm is about 7-hectares [17 acres], is well-suited to organic farming," says Bernhard Jansen, who heads EkoConnect.
Small-scale farmers are less likely to have ever used costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or to have given their livestock hormone-infused feed, a plus for farmers who wish to convert their farms. To receive regulatory approval as an organic farm from Poland's agricultural ministry, farm owners must have refrained from using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides for at least 12 months.
The effects of Soviet-era policies also impelled Poles to foster personal relationships with farmers, a habit that has continued today. Agricultural prices were set artificially low, giving farmers little incentive to increase production beyond their own needs. The low prices caused chronic food shortages, and many urban Poles say they remember when knowing farmers, butchers, and others involved in food production was more a survival tactic than a trendy effort to "eat organic." Eating local is a way of life here, whether people deliberately pick organic food or not, but it helps that the strong economy – Poland's labor ministry's preliminary estimates put September unemployment at 9.1 percent versus nearly 20 percent in 2004 – has given Poles more disposable income to pay for more expensive fresh food.
Farmer Klimczak's own adventure with environmentally friendly farming started in 1987 after he attended a lecture given by a visiting German agriculture expert. Inspired, Klimczak secured a passport – not an easy feat in totalitarian Poland – and traveled to Germany to take part in an eco-farming course.
Klimczak began making preservative-free cheeses and yogurts made with live cultures, which became wildly popular with local customers who say the taste is superior to store-bought brands, and that the products stay fresh longer.
Others rely on organic food for its perceived health benefits; many here believe in the healing power of the countryside.
"I've been buying organic vegetables, kasha, milk, and especially eggs for the past 15 years," says Warsaw resident Anna Basiak. "I don't want to ruin my stomach." Ms. Basiak made the switch to organic when sauerkraut of unknown provenance made her ill. Today, she shops in grocery stories that buy directly from farmers.
In 1995, Klimczak sold his cows to focus on cheese production. He also expanded his factory, a two-story building big enough to hold his 12 employees.
"It was hard to combine taking care of the cows with making cheese," says Klimczak, who lives in a little villa surrounded by a landscaped garden on his 42-acre farm. "I had to build additional buildings and there wasn't any room for the cows. Plus I needed the money."
Since Klimczak began outsourcing milk production to other local farmers, his company's yearly sales have grown 30-fold to about 3 million zlotys in 2007. But in Klimczak's case, bigger is still local, providing both homegrown quality and a personal touch. His employees mold fresh butter by hand, and "We only buy milk from dairy farmers who feed their cows hay and grass, no pickled feed."
Klimczak says he's not planning to apply for European Union subsidies and doesn't spend any money on marketing.
"I'd rather not complicate things by growing too big. Plus, I don't want to take money just for the sake of taking it," he says. "We've filled a niche, that's what business is about."