The Art of Survival: Family Farms in Poland

The Art of Survival: Family Farms in Poland
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Some Introductory Remarks

This article has been focused on the issue of family farming in Poland, including its history as well as the present state. However, we think that such a task requires two important additional undertakings, namely: to consider the context including some issues concerning family farming in neighboring countries and to analyze the history of a particular path of development (Poland). Both of them form important dimensions, showing on the one hand dominant tendencies in Eastern and Central Europe, while on the other hand, the peculiarity of farm developments in Poland.
Looking at the history of the period after World War II agricultural development in Poland seems to be quite exceptional concerning some processes of agrarian modernization in Europe. In the Western part of the continent one might observe processes of de-peasantization, showing the transformation from a more traditional peasant farms to modern family enterprises enabling a French sociologist Henri Mendras (1970, 1976) to formulate a claim about the “end of peasantry” as a result of “farmerization”. The similar process of modernization in the Eastern part of the continent has been occurred under the frame of the policy of collectivization in which peasant farms, following Soviet patterns introduced already in late 1920`s and early 1930`s, have been forced to join collective farm frames. In such a context Poland remained a kind of exceptional case experiencing neither Western-type farmerization nor the Soviet Bloc collectivized modernization. That also means that Polish farmers entered a post-communist transformation with quite peculiar historical path of development in the second half of the XXth century. 

The Context: Family Farming in Central Europe 

The modern history of rural East-Central Europe has been certainly the history of post-peasant agriculture. However, quite contrary to the history of Western part of the continent they experienced coexistence with some large agricultural estates being a property of members of dominant aristocracy and to a lesser extent gentry classes. In the late XVIth and XVIIth centuries for example in Poland processes of agricultural and rural change led to the formation of larger estates under the frame of the serfdom system. Similar processes might be also observed in the societies of the region. They were also strengthened by processes of collectivization after World War II.
Therefore considering changes of agrarian structure in countries like: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia as well as Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria an author might formulate a surprising (to her) observation: “Family farming which is dominant production model in most market economies of the European Union was expected to emerge rapidly in transitional countries (…) Contrary to expectations, however, large farms continue to dominate (…)” (Maurel, 2015: 80; see also: Swain, 1993, 2013). Why is that? The author claims that this seems to be a result of path dependency showing an unchanging pattern in many countries in the region, namely: the structural agrarian dualism. The tables presented below show main characteristics of this phenomenon.

Table 1 - Very Large Farms

Source: Maurel (2015: 83)

Table 2 - Small farms 

Source: Maurel (2015: 85)

Based on these data the author formulates several more general statements concerning the issue of family farming in the context of Eec countries. Family farming seems to be a weak link in post-collectivized agriculture (Maurel, 2015: 81), since a significant majority of farms in countries under consideration lack of some characteristics of family farm phenomenon as described in some European Union documents (see: Davidova, Thomson, 2014). However, on the other hand these documents stress diversities of family farm phenomenon, focusing on sizes of farms, full-and/or part time jobs, divergent lifestyles from hobby farming to business ones, land property relations, mental models as well as institutional contexts. As a result of these relations three various agricultural models in Cee countries might be presented. As Maurel (2015: 86) puts it: “New structural distinctions have appeared between agriculture systems based on a high level of land concentration and the use of wage labor and those agricultural systems with a more dual configuration that combine family and non-family labor. There are illustrated in Czech agriculture, in which farms are mostly of a very large size, Hungarian agriculture, in which farm size categories are more diverse and Lithuanian agriculture in which small and medium family farms are more numerous”. Recent (after 2004 – i.e. joining the EU) agrarian restructuring also brought about different results in mentioned countries. While in the Czech case the revival of family farming has not been observable, quite contrary it the cases of Hungary and Lithuania one might observe the emergence “ (…) of very small family farms and of a limited number of medium sized holdings individually or family managed” (Maurel, 2015: 87).
What are reasons of such developments in post-communist countries? First of all the principal factor seems to be connected to the general situation in particular countries under communism. Despite the common frame of the state socialism (Soviet-type) some significant varieties might be observed, concerning various roles of independent, not party-state controlled, social activities (see: Ekiert, 1996). Therefore various paths of institutional change as well as mental models played different roles in different countries. Maurel (2015: 88 – 89) stresses the emergence of various attitudes towards private/family farming in the initial period of the post-communist transformations. Such diversity of institutional and mental contexts has resulted in the different paths of changes concerning land property relations (see: table 3).

Table 3 - Procedures of privatizing land and assets

Source: Maurel (2015: 91)

However, despite all these varieties one might be able to observe the process called the slow consolidation of family farming (Maurel, 2015: 94 – 102). Yet, as a result of this process we can still observe the domination of the large corporate farms in the Czech Republic. In turn, in Hungary the new divide between large and small farms might be visible in a better way. At the same time, we might observe that in Lithuania the level of land concentration is not as high as in the Czech Republic and Hungary, while on the other hand in Hungary one might consider the presence of small–scale agriculture being more visible comparing to the Czech Republic. It results from the development of family farming in the post-communist period.
Such a process need to be somehow explained. According to Maurel (2015: 99) it is coming from the peasant tradition, which seems to be extremely important “(…) in the (…) Central Europe and then it was further embedded in the enforcement of auxiliary plots during collectivization”. It is worth to stress that the role of such plots has been more important in Hungary and Lithuania than in the Czech Republic. In the case of Hungary the role of such plots has been exposed as a result of a more liberal economic policy that has been taken together with mix of more harsh policies towards ideological and civic issues resulting from the crush of anti-Soviet uprising in the fall of 1956 (Manchin, Szelenyi, 1985; Szelenyi, 1988). In Lithuania, which during the communist period was a part of the Soviet state, quite contrary to Hungary and Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at that time) being formally sovereign states but only parts of the Soviet Bloc, the role of auxiliary plots resulted from the Soviet-type agricultural policies formed finally during the de-Stalinization period in late 1950`s and early 1960`s (Wadekin, 1982). They gained a more important position there comparing to the Czech Republic (western part of Czechoslovakia at that time) where collectivization has been completed relatively later i.e. in early 1960`s and therefore probably reached the status of a more economic type of agricultural organization than in other communist countries. The Czech agriculture had also a much lower employment in the sector than Hungary, Lithuania, Poland as well as other countries of Eastern Europe.
Such tendencies during the communist period have resulted in diversification after the political breakthrough in 1989/1990. As Maurel (2015: 87) stresses: “Agrarian restructuring had taken different pathways. In Czech Republic, the revival of family farming has been a limited, whereas in Hungary and Lithuania, the reshaping of agrarian structures has seen the emergence of very small family farms and of a limited number of medium sized holdings individually or family managed”. However, it is worth to stress that such differences and/or varieties have resulted from a few contexts. One should mention that institutional, mental as well as property relations contexts seemed to play decisive roles. The first one seems to be related mainly to the diminishing of collective institutional frames that started to play as an immediate consequence of 1989 political breakthrough. In turn, the significance of mental models perceived (see especially: Maurel, 2015: 88) as a kind of cultural path dependency has played a much more complex on economic and social changes after 1989. We are not so sure if the explanations given in the quoted article (see again: Maurel, 2015 and cited literature) might be treated as sufficient ones. The authors stress the role of learned inability to coop with a new post-collectivist type reality with its stress on the individual property and the need to play free-market games. While not entirely questioning this type of reasoning we would like to add something more. We want to stress that there were some additional factors resulting in various paths of family farms rebirth in countries under consideration. In the case of Hungary we have to stress again the already mentioned relatively liberal economic policies that helped many of Hungarian farmers stay on the so-called parking orbits (see: Manchin and Szelenyi, 1985) during the period of collectivized economy especially in the 1970`s and 1980`s. In the case of Lithuania the role of pre-Soviet tradition of family farming seemed to be a decisive factor facing the direct oppression from the Soviet-type collectivized economy implemented after World War II. In turn, in the Czech Republic the situation seemed to be a bit different. Large farms established as a part of agricultural collectivization policy seemed to be, at least in part, in accordance with strong modernization of the Czech economy in the pre-war period that led it to become as a most advanced industrial economy among central European ones. Therefore the process of changing property relations gave visible different results in the three countries under consideration. In the Czech Republic we see still the dominance of large corporate (the heirs of collective) farms. In Hungary a new divide between large and small farms became quite visible. In turn, in Lithuania one might observe the dominance of family farming as a regenerated model (see: Maurel, 2015: 94 – 99).
The natural question should be posed right now: what happens in the processes of family farm consolidations in Eec countries after May 1, 2004, i.e. the date of joining formally European Union. As Maurel (2015: 100) puts it: “During the 2000`s the approaching challenge of becoming members of the EU required that agricultural structures again adapted to new economic and social regulations. Implementing Cap instruments caused the consolidation process of small and medium family farms to have slowed down”. As a result of these processes the presence of small scale farms (less than 2 ha) as well as those receiving less than € 500 per year becomes quire diversified in the Eec countries (see the table below).

Table 4 - Minimum levels for direct payments by MS

Source: Maurel (2015: 101)

History of Family/Peasant Farms in Poland

As we wrote before the history of peasant farms in Poland seems to be quite exceptional in the context of other Eec`s. As we put earlier: “Poland was atypical of countries under communism insofar as it retained at least two relatively autonomous enclaves: the Roman Catholic Church and the peasant family farm. In 1989, as the first democratic elections since the Second World War were held, the private sector contained slightly more than 2 million family farms, comprising about 76 per cent of Polish farmland. At this time, the socialized sector consisted of almost1,000 state farms (…) and about 2.200 collective farms (…). State farms held about 20 per cent of the available arable land and collective farms about 4 per cent. The private and socialized differed a great deal in size. Most of the family/private farm-holdings (about 35 per cent) were between 2 to 5 hectares and only 6 per cent had more than 15 hectares of arable land. The average size of family farms as about 7 hectares while those of state and collective farms were, respectively, slightly more than 4000 hectares and about 350 hectares” (Gorlach, Mooney, 1998: 261). It resulted from the long-term communist agricultural policies that were in favor of both state-owned and collective farms to supply them with the means of production as well as to offer them more friendly financial measures, like tax breaks and cheap credits.
In order to explain the visibility of private/family farms in Poland in 1989 one have to look through the whole history of relations between state and peasant farms after the Second World War in this particular country. This history might be divided in a few important periods. In each of them relations between state policies and peasants/farmers` reactions formed particular types of domination/reaction counterbalance. Then, such a history might be framed as the arts of survival process following the well-known statement that: “Relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance” (Scott, 1990: 45). Therefore we might point out two main periods of the relations mentioned above.
The first one might be focused on the political efforts towards formation of collective farms. However, the results of these efforts due to changing political environment, have been quite opposite to the planned results. As we stressed: “The pretentious yet shaky nature of the foundations of the co-operative “movement” were clearly revealed by the almost instantaneous break-up of most co-operatives after October 1956 [major political breakthrough at that time – K.G.; P.N.; M.W-K., i.e. the beginning of the process of de-Stalinization]. Of ten thousand co-operatives [in fact collective farms – K.G.; P.N.; M.W-K.] (…) eight thousand very shortly ceased to exist” (Gorlach, 1989: 25). It is worth to stress that such course of events has strengthened the idea of family farming with its irreplaceable values among Polish peasants. Such an idea has worked in later decades as well.
However, the beginning of the de-Stalinization era did not mean the entire change in the hostile policies against family farming. As we stressed: “The vacillations and ambiguities in the agricultural policy of the 1960`s and 1970`s are easier to understand as the result of two contradictory forces. First, authorities needed to assure food supply and this could not be managed if collective farming was fully enforced. On the other hand, the authorities never abandoned their vision of collective farming” (Gorlach, Mooney, 1998: 266). The result of such a policy was the idea of “increasing production in the peasant sector, without the development of the sector” (Kuczyński, 1981: 47).
Similar tendencies in agricultural policies might be visible in the 1980`s as well. As Korboński (1990: 274) put it, the communist authorities policy towards peasant agriculture seemed to be “a carrot and stick variety”, described elsewhere as the “repressive tolerance” (see also: Gorlach, 1989: 31 – 32). It means that they tried “ (…) to follow the way of their predecessors who carried our agrarian reform in 1944-5 to deprive their opponents of peasant support” (Gorlach, Mooney, 1998: 269). As Korboński (1990: 273) says: “The record shows that starting with the declaration of martial law, general Jaruzelski has engaged in open flirtation with the peasants. Faced with open hostility on the part of the workers and the intelligentsia, the new leader had little choice but to turn to the one segment of Polish society which did not exhibit outright enmity to his policies. Thus in the course of 1982 and 1983 government`s ire was directed primarily against the workers and intellectuals, and the regime clearly tried to curry favor with the peasants”. Therefore in the 1980`s one might observe the slow increase in the number of farms above 15 hectares as well as a sharp increase of transfer of farmland from the State Land Fund to the family farm sector. Moreover the recognition of family property in agriculture as an equal part to state and collective property has been marked in the constitution of the People`s Republic of Poland in 1983 (the name of the communist Poland at that time). However, at the same time one might observe some tendencies against the full-scale Western-type farmerization of peasant landholdings. As we stressed: “In 1984 and 1985 the amount of farmland transferred from the State Land Fund to the peasant sector decreased significantly [as compared to the years 1982 and 1983 – K.G.; P.N.; M.W-K.]. (…) Much less intense use of fertilizers on individual farms as well as smaller deliveries of quality feedstuffs to the peasant sector by the state agencies we also a part of the agricultural picture in mid-1980`s” (Gorlach, Mooney, 1998: 270). 

Changes of Family Farms in the Transition Period

One considering the changes and present functioning of family farms in Poland has to stress the role of deep history and as current circumstances. The history has been described in the part presented above with a heavy stress of the failed collectivization experience and unfulfilled expectations of Western-type modernization (farmerization). As Halamska (2015: 112 – 114) put it, that was the experience of stopped collectivization strongly related to the slowed down modernization. Therefore the passage in 1989 might be called as a transit from the system of repressive tolerance to the regime of oppressive freedom (Gorlach, Seręga, 1993).
Farms in Poland after 1989 have been shaped by a few basic social and economic processes resulting from the undertaken policies based on the idea of free market and the declining involvement of the state. The withdrawn of the state support towards state farms resulted in rather quick collapse of strong majority of them. In 1989, the Polish agricultural area structure was as follows: 19,7% belonged to the public sector and 80,3% to the private sector in 2013 only 1,8% was public sector, 98,2% private sector (Gus 2014:66). In 1996: "The area of agricultural land in public sector farms decreased by as much as 64 % , and their share in total agricultural land use from 18.9 % to 7.0 %" (Dzun, 2014: 20).
In turn, one might observed the significant decrease of the labor force involved in agriculture. In 2003 still more than 18% of labor force has been involved in agriculture while in 2012 the percentage has dropped to slightly more than 12. While considering only rural areas inhabitants the percentage of them working in agriculture had reached in 2003 more than 43, while almost ten years later dropped to less than 30 (Halamska, 2015: 119).
At the same time major restructuring processes among family farms might be observed as well. The first one has been dealt with a rapid decrease of number of farms, which is even a more rapid in the years of 2003 – 2013 comparing to the period before (1990 – 2002). Therefore we might talk about the so-called dualization of family farming in Poland. While we talk about the decline of the total number of farms one has to stress the reversal tendency among the farms with more than 15 hectares of arable land (see the table below).

Table 5 - The change in the structure of private farms over 1 ha

Source: Halamska (2015: 119)

Such a tendency also results in divergent trajectories towards commercialization. Market-oriented farms have been more visible among larger ones which are also much more oriented towards selling their products directly to food processing industry (Sikorska, 2013: 39). Moreover, the so-called pro-market orientation indicator has reached the level of 87 among small farms (1-5 ha), while skyrocketed over 600 among the largest ones (more than 50 ha) (Halamska, 2015: 122). At the same time farms in Poland revealed two various “family strategies”. Small farms called as quasi-peasant ones are characterized by a stronger presence of women and older persons among their operators. 1/3 of such farm operators has been replaced in the last decade. That might mean that such farms have been parts of family strategies focused on an economic security and some social benefits. Quite contrary among the largest farms operators we might see more males, better educated and professionally prepared to run agricultural businesses. In such a case family strategies have been focused on farms as a main source of income and a tool to maximize profits (Halamska, 2015: 125).


The communist period, quite contrary to initial expectations, has not resulted in the homogenized type of functioning agriculture in communist countries. Therefore, after the political breakthrough in the years 1989/1990, some differences seem to be visible due to some mental characteristics of the farmers as well as some rural policies undertaken by particular communist countries. Therefore Poland`s exception seems to be even more visible because the majority of farms remained in private (family) hands, as a result of the game with communist authorities. After 1989/1990 breakthrough one might stress two different periods in farming history of Poland. The first one (1989 – 2003) might be treated as a kind of “liberal” and “austerity measures” experiment, while the second one (after May 1, 2004) might be treated as a result of CA and Crp policies. That results in the diversification of Polish farms between small units using also off-farm jobs by family members and intensive, industrial-type farms.


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