Six months in Poland with a Maryland county agent

January-July 2003 - - I have been an agricultural extension agent on Maryland's Eastern Shore for the past five years. I've enjoyed a rather ordinary existence as a county agent except for a few excursions to Eastern Europe, the most recent, six months in Poland as a participant in the Polish/American Extension Project.

The mountain sheep are triple purpose. While on pasture, the ewes are brought into a corral three times a day to be milked. Milking is done by hand. Each herder milks about 100 ewes per day. Because of the differences in genetics and condition, milk production is quite variable between ewes. It is very low in many cases, but on the average, ewes give 60 liters of milk during the season. The herders receive all the income from the milk; in fact, it is their only pay. Because of this arrangement, sheep growers must pay to send dry ewes to the mountains.

 

Cheese is made at the camp's smoke house. Five to six pounds of sheep's milk is needed to make one pound of cheese. The by-products of cheese-making are consumed by the herders or fed to livestock. Pigs grow very fast when they have whey in their diets. The final cheese product is sold at open air markets in the villages.


It goes without saying that mountain sheep production is deeply rooted in tradition. Some shepherds still wear traditional dress and production methods have probably changed little over the years. According to the Poles, the Polish Mountain Sheep, "Polska Owca górska," is the only breed that will survive mountain conditions. Polish mountain sheep are primarily a wool and milk breed. They are a poor meat breed - narrow and thin-muscled, lambs dressing only about 40 percent.


The wool is white and coarse, particularly suitable for carpet manufacture. Their thatch-like coat consists of loose locks, with a characteristic parting line down the back. There is a variety with black wool, which becomes reddish or gray with age. The Polish Mountain Sheep and their crosses yield beautiful sheepskins with rich colors of black, silver, brown and grays.


Adopting Western Ways
Sheep production in the rest of Poland is more akin to western ways. In fact, the first sheep farm "farma owczarska" I visited in Poland was more like an American sheep farm than one you'd expect to find in southern Poland. The farmer had 500 ewes. Most Poles keep fewer than 20 sheep and 10 is more likely.

 

Most of the state farms, called "PGRs" that uses to keep large flocks of sheep have been reduced or sold out because of low market prices. This farmer owned 100 hectares (250 acres) of land and rented additional land from a state farm. The average far in his province is less than 10 acres, as hillside farming operations are typically very small and diversified, often still using horses for plowing.


The sheep are kept in the barn. In fact, all livestock spent the long winter in the barn, not seeing the light of day until the middle of May. The farmer fed home-raised grains and hay to his flock. In the spring, when the sheep are turned out to pasture, someone must tend to the flock because of predators, much like the situation in the western United States. I have found fences in Poland to be sparse.


The sheep looked like a typical bunch of crossbreds, but they were breeds I had never seen before. Most of the animals were a cross between Polska owce dlugowetnisie (Polish long wool sheep) and Blackheaded Mutton sheep, a breed imported from Western Europe for its meat qualities. The Blackheaded sheep resembled Hampshires, and in fact, share some common ancestry with our down breeds. The long wool sheep are well-adapted to the mountainous terrain of Southern Poland and are still found in large numbers there.


With the assistance of an agriculture university, the farmer had recently imported some Charollais rams from France. The Charollais is a thickly muscled breed that looks similar to the Texel. As there is little money in wool, Polish farmers are gradually shifting their emphasis from wool to meat production and are doing more crossing with meat-type breeds like the Blackheaded sheep and Charollais.


Before economic reforms, the relative importance of Polish sheep breeds was: Polish Merino, 40 percent; Polish Lowland sheep, 38 percent; Polish Long wool sheep, 15 percent; Polish Mountain Sheep, 4 percent; and imported breeds, 2 percent. Imported breeds included Corriedale, Romney Marsh, Finn, Suffolk, Ile de France, and East Friesian. Much like the U.S., the most popular breed varied by region and production system.

The Polish Mountain sheep and long wool breeds predominate in southern Poland, the Polish Merino throughout the reset of the country, and the East Friesian was the mainstay in the Jelenia Góra province. Studies revealed that meat production accounted for 70 percent of the income from sheep, 30 percent wool - similar to the United States.


A wonderful experience
The six months I spend in Poland were among the most enjoyable, challenging, frustrating and rewarding of my career. I enjoyed Poland, its warm and friendly people, its rich history and its culture. I feel that I made a contribution to the project and the ODR Jelenia Góra, and I think all Americans can feel proud for the contribution we are making to Poland and other emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.


It goes without saying that Polish farmers are experiencing extreme financial difficulty, brought about by the abrupt change to a market-type economy, a situation that has worsened by the economic decline of the former Soviet Union. But once an internal market infrastructure is organized and world trade is liberalized, I believe Poland will be competitive in international markets and make a good trading partner with the United States.

The Polish/American Extension Project was initiated in 1991 to restructure and revitalize Poland's Agricultural Advisory Service, which is analogous to our Cooperative Extension Service, and to train Polish agricultural advisors and specialists in free market agricultural economics. It is co-sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Food Economy.
 

I served for six months, January through July 1993, as an Extension Economist for the ODR Jelenia Góra. An ODR is the Polish name for an extension office, and Jelenia Góra is the name of the province where I worked. There are 49 provinces in Poland. Jelenia Góra is situated in southwest Poland on the border with Germany and the Czech Republic. It is also the name of the city, pop. 80,000, that houses the provincial government and ODR center.

It was my job to work with and train my peers in the Polish ODR system. As part of a two-person field team assigned to the Jelenia Góra province, I provided training in farm financial management, marketing and computer use. I was also involved with efforts to start 4-H in Poland.


In general, the Project's efforts focus on providing the basic economic knowledge and skills needed to manage farms and agribusinesses, not on trying to increase agricultural production. In fact, it is a common misconception that farmers in Eastern Europe lack the know-how or technology to produce food and fiber as well as farmers in the West. They may lack the resources, especially the small farmers, but the research base in Poland is solid, the labor force is skilled and well-educated, and I found the extension staff to be knowledgeable and well-trained.


It was my third trip to Eastern Europe, and I learned very quickly that Poland was different from the other two countries I had visited, must further ahead than Russia in its economic reforms and having an agricultural industry structure significantly different from Hungary's. In fact, Poland stands in stark contrast to other Eastern European countries because the Communists never fully collectivized agriculture there, though food processing and distribution were incorporated into central planning. Private farms control three-quarters of the land in Poland.


Most private farms are small, averaging around 15 acres and producing both crops and livestock. Farm size is dictated to a large extent by region. Farms in the southern and eastern region of Poland are smaller than farms in the rest of the country. It goes without saying that small farms are ill-equipped.


Hand labor is still widely used. Milking is done by hand. The milk is collected in cans and transported by horse-drawn wagons. On small farms, horses are still used for plowing and haymaking. It is not uncommon to see horses and tractors working in fields side by side.


Small farmers generally lack the resources of state farms and large private farms. They cannot afford to buy commercial fertilizer and crop protection chemicals or supplemental feeds for their livestock. Manure is often the only form of fertilizer used and livestock are fed only what can be raised on the farm. As a result, livestock diets are typically deficient in protein and low in energy as compared to the rations fed on U.S. farms.


Large private farms use much of the same technology as farms in the West. As Poland continues in its market reforms, farm size will invariably increase and small farms will be consolidated into more economical units.


The rest of the land is operated by large socialized farms: state farms and collectives. State-run farms are most numerous in the northern and western regions of Poland, areas that were incorporated into Poland after the second World War, such as the Jelenia Góra province. Most state farms are not considered to be very profitable and many are being privatized. Along with the fate of small farms, privatization of state farms is a major concern to reformists.


During the six months I was in Poland, I learned a great deal about Polish agriculture, its strengths, weaknesses and the many challenges that lie ahead. Because of my background in sheep production, I was especially interested in learning about the Polish sheep industry, which has suffered greatly under the transition to a market economy.


Market reforms difficult for farmers
To understand sheep production in Poland, it is first necessary to understand the economic and political changes that have taken place in Poland, particularly during the past several years and to recognize the effect these changes have had on the agrarian sector.

 

Communism never sat well with the independent Poles. Solidarity, a name we are all familiar with, has its roots in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1981 that is was recognized as a legal trade union, the first in a communist country. The "democratic" freedoms Solidarity brought didn't last very long because the following year, martial law was declared, and Solidarity had to go underground. But in 1989, negotiations with the Communist government brought free elections, and Solidarity became the first non-Communist government in the Eastern Bloc and Lech Walesa the first popularly elected president in nearly 50 years.
 

Since 1989, Solidarity has split into many different factions, including Rural Solidarity which represents farmers, and Poland has been besieged with political upheaval. During the six months I was in Poland, both the Minister of Agriculture and Director of Extension resigned, the ag ministry building was taken over by angry farmers in protest, and President Walesa disbanded the parliament and called for new elections, which in October gave power to the reformed Communists.

It is a widely accepted notion that farmers were better off under the old, centrally-planned economy; the sheep farmers certainly were. Under Communism, markets were guaranteed and protected. Many inputs were free, and debts were oftentimes forgiven. Prices were subsidized, and Mother Russia, busy stockpiling military hardware, was a ready market for anything the Poles could produce.


According to some farmers, the system was rife with corruption, but at least they understood it. The new system is confusing, frustrating and open to exploitation. Since the collapse of Communism and the introduction of market reforms, Polish farmers have had to face a flood of western imports, trade barriers they don't understand, market prices that are below production costs, and a government that seems paralyzed to help. Inflation is high, interest rates are staggering, and the price of inputs has risen at a much faster rate than commodity prices. Animal agriculture has been especially hard hit during these times, with no industry suffering more than the sheep industry.


Sheep numbers plunge
The beginning of the 1980s was favorable to sheep production in Poland, because of meat shortages. Furthermore, higher prices for wool and skins spawned flock expansion, and by 1989, the Polish national flock burgeoned to 5 million ahead, a lot of sheep for a country the size of New Mexico. But when the implementation of market reforms coincided with a global overproduction of wool, the sheep industry was devastated; the production of wool was emphasized before government reforms, despite government efforts to improve meat quality in the '70s and '80s.


The June 1991 ag census reported 3.2 million stock sheep in Poland. Sheep numbers have continued to decline, and at last count, there were about a million and a half sheep left in Poland. The future continues to look grim for sheep raising as world prices remain at 10-year lows and the outlook for sheep meat isn't much brighter; the per capita consumption of lamb in Poland is quite low and international markets are becoming increasingly competitive.

Marketing is the biggest challenge
Marketing is clearly the biggest challenge facing the Polish sheep industry. Poles eat 1.4 pounds of sheep meat per year, comparable to the low per capita consumption in the United States. Consequently, the industry must rely heavily on export markets. Traditionally, the Poles ship large numbers of "hot house" lambs to Italy in the spring. However, an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in Croatia curbed exports in 1993 as the European Community refused to accept livestock from Central and Eastern Europe. According to some Poles, this was a political decision by the EC to limit imports from the East.

 

But, this fact remains: the Polish sheep industry must increase exports if it is to remain a viable industry and to rebuild to previous levels. The Polish government will probably continue to have trade disagreements with Europe that may only cease when and if Poland is accepted as a member of the EC. Exports to other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, are strongly needed. Regional trade agreements offer some hope.


Based on what I saw in southern Poland, another problem the Polish industry has in expanding export markets is quality. The meat characteristics of many Polish lambs are poor. Lambs of the wool breeds are slow growing and poorly muscled. The Communist government supported wool prices and this invariably led to the production and selection of sheep that do not produce meat-type lambs. Many Polish shepherds are changing their emphasis from wool production to meat production by introducing meat-type breeds to their breeding programs, but tradition remains an obstacle to improving quality in many flocks.


Without exports, the industry has few alternatives for marketing lamb and wool. Government prices remain low and private markets are practically nonexistent, although a new slaughter facility did recently open in southern Poland. Efforts aimed at increasing the domestic consumption of lamb could be worthwhile. However, such efforts will be met with resistance, because, according to many, there is no tradition of eating lamb in Poland. During my six month stay in Poland, I only ate lamb at special outdoor celebrations called "bonfires". Lamb was on the menu of just one restaurant and I never found lamb in the grocery stores or butcher shops.


Mountain sheep production
While the number of sheep raised in Poland is significantly less than it was several years ago, the southern mountain provinces still boast large numbers of sheep. During my six month stay, I had the opportunity to learn about mountain sheep production, a traditional way of raising sheep in the province of Nowy Sącz.

 

Nowy Sącz shares a border with the newly independent Slovakia. Due to its hilly and mountainous terrain, it is the bastion of sheep production in Poland, though sheep numbers have slipped from 250,000 head to 70,000 in just a few short years. Despite the decline, sheep raising is still an important part of the local culture and tourists who travel to Nowy Sącz may purchase a variety of wool and sheepskin products to take home as souvenirs.

 

I found mountain sheep production to be similar to sheep production in the western United States in that there are large flocks of sheep grazing open range, all under the watchful eyes of a sheepherder, "Batsa," and his dogs. However, unlike bands in the western U.S., Polish flocks are comprised of animals that come from many different owners. This accounts for considerable differences in the quality and condition of animals. Typically, all the shepherds in a village put their sheep together to send to the mountains, many having fewer than 10 animals to contribute to the flock.


The flock is composed mostly of mature ewes; few lambs run with the flock because most are sold as hothouse lambs around Easter time. The large, white dogs I saw seemed to be dual purpose: to protect the sheep from predators, mostly wolves I was told, and do some simple herding. Horses are widely used by Polish farmers, but did not seem to have an important role in tending sheep.

The sheep spend from May to September in the mountains. They are sheared, dipped and dewormed before going to mountain pastures; this is the responsibility of the owner. They do not receive any more anthelmintic treatments until their return in the fall. Rams are turned in
around the 10th of September for February lambs. Stocking rates on mountain pastures are high. I visited a 2,000-acre grazing area, where about 12,000 sheep were being grazed in bands of 500 to 800.

This article was written in 1993 by Susan Schoenian.

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