Old breeds, new ideas are helping small farms
I just returned from a 10 day photo assignment covering the efforts of Heifer Project — Poland to return heritage/locally-adapted breeds of chickens, geese, cattle, and pigs to small farmers struggling to keep a foothold in this changing country. These breeds in many cases are already making a difference. One of these, the Polish Red Cattle, requires very little feed to produce milk with a super high cream content — an important attribute in regions like this with harsh climates.
This program is a spot of good news for this heavily agricultural country — it has the highest percentage of people engaged in farming (~22 percent) in Europe — but many are struggling in the aftermath of the Soviet era that dictated what and how people farmed, followed by the volatile market reforms, and then the strict new E.U. rules about how meat, dairy products, and crops are produced.
That’s what I’d read in the New York Times this spring, in a story which reported that interest in buying local is thin, and the market for organic is even thinner. And this is largely what I saw there — people preferred to buy vegetables from Germany, and farms I visited were wondering what their market would be in the future. Ironically, most of these farms were already organic because of the prohibitive cost of chemical amendments, but hadn’t bothered with the paperwork. Most small farmers don’t sell at all, but consume what they grow — pure subsistence.
So I was really surprised to arrive home and have one of the editors here at Orion forward me this upbeat Polish agriculture story in a recent edition of the Christian Science Monitor.
“Poland’s organic farms prove to be fruitful ventures” proclaimed that "eating local is a way of life" in Poland, and interviewed a shopper happy to pay extra for organic. Certainly some folks are, but that attitude may have much more to do with proximity to large urban centers like Warsaw and Krakow than a general attitude.
I think the NYT reporter was closer to getting it right, but that’s a tall order when covering such a complex and culturally-rich country. One thing I can say is that Poles are very forward thinking — all 16 states of this very conservative country have defied the E.U. in banning genetically modified organisms outright. Organic and local will certainly take off — it may just be a matter of shedding the all-too-recent memories of the bad days when eating local was more of a survival strategy. In the meanwhile, the community-building work that the Heifer Project is doing to connect and uplift small-scale farmers is laying that groundwork nicely.