06/13/2015 04:03 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2016

Pig Farming in Poland

I know a bit about dairy farming since I spent my summers growing up in the dairy country of Vermont's Northern Kingdom. But my knowledge of pig farming is all second-hand and comes mostly from Annie Proulx's novel That Old Ace in the Hole, a devastating indictment of industrial farming in Oklahoma. What remains in my memory are the huge holding ponds of pig excrement and the unholy smell.

So I was pleasantly surprised to visit the pig farm of Adam and Anna Janeczek, located in the village of Wyborow, a couple hours east of Warsaw. Their neighborhood looked practically suburban, with neat houses lined up one side of the street and well-tended fields on the other side. I didn't smell any pigs, and I certainly didn't see any holding ponds. Behind the Janeczek's house, small enough to be concealed from the road by a few trees, lay their pig operation (pictured above). We sat in their scrupulously clean living room to chat.

Theirs is a family farm, which is nothing like the industrial farming that dominates American agriculture. The Janeczeks keep about 90 sows and produce about 1,300 piglets a year that they then fatten up and sell. When Poland entered the European Union in 2004, it became much cheaper for Polish pig farmers to simply buy piglets from countries like Denmark and then raise them for sale. They could then dispense with all the buildings and equipment and expertise needed to produce their own piglets. But the Janeczeks continue to maintain the older traditions that their family have held to for the century or so that their farm has been in existence.

It's not easy to be a small farmer in Poland. "It's frustrating, for instance, that the state wants to subsidize sows when you have 150 or more," Anna Janeczek told me.

That's for industrial farms. We have 85 or so. So, we'd be interested in seeing subsidies for farms with 50 sows or more. That would be fair for us. But this government that we have only gives advantages to the big farmers.

Adam Janeczek agreed.

"All the time people talk about healthy food," he said.

In my opinion, and this is the great deception, the production of large firms is not possible without drugs, antibiotics and so on. They don't have time to take care of one pig at a time.

But if we're talking about small farms, family farms, there's much less risk of illness, so the food is healthier. We have less waste, and we dispose of it properly. But politics is a different matter, as you probably understand.

Much has changed since the end of the Communist era. When Janeczek was in Norway in the 1980s, he was shocked when the farmer he was visiting went to a store to buy only two screws. "Why two screws?" he asked.

Because with us if there were screws in the shop, if they were available, you'd get a kilo, or two or five. If they were there. But we went to the store in Norway and there was no problem. The screws were there, and he bought just two of them. I came back to Poland and I wanted to buy screws and there weren't any.

Today, the stores are full of products, but they're more expensive and people don't necessarily have the money to buy them. "Some farmers think logically and buy the machine only if it's necessary," his wife said.

Other farmers see a low price and buy it even if they don't need it. They buy the new tractor even if they can't afford it. That's why there's all this debt. But we don't have that kind of debt.

The fact is there's a lot of equipment in the countryside. There might not be a lot of buildings and there might not be a lot inside people's houses, but outside in the yard there's a lot of equipment.

It's not a life that is attracting many young people to relocate to the countryside. "My husband's no longer a spring chicken," she continued.

He has a combine. At this point it's worn out but my husband still uses it. The young people don't want to work in these conditions. They don't want to work nights. My husband is a born farmer. He works for the idea of it.

Sometimes we argue because I'd like some repairs on the house, and he doesn't because it needs work there and there and there: it's a bottomless pit. But the young generation wants something different.

They don't want to work all the time because of an idea. They only have to see that it's necessary to harvest, to thresh, and you can't just get it over with quickly and go on vacation. My husband still does it this way.

The Interview

What was the situation like 23 years ago here at the farm?

Husband: If we're talking about the economy, before 1989 there was money but no goods in the stores. And today there are goods but no money. It's the reverse. In 1988, I left the country for the first time. I was in Norway. And there was a store with machines, tractors. I thought stupidly, "Damn, they have all these products but no one to buy them!" And now that's the situation with us too. It's a question of money. I'll tell you, before 1989 it was rather common for farmers to be taken care of in some way by the state. There was no room for maneuver. There were no goods, nothing to buy. But now, after all the changes, enterprises developed. Now it's necessary to have a finger on the pulse of what's going on in order to control the situation.

Wife: We're farmers, and certainly we don't have influence over the situation. For instance, chemical fertilizers are terribly expensive. The means of production for farmers include tractors, machines. Everything is entrepreneurial. In our example, for instance, we can't increase our landholding even if we want, because everyone wants to buy land and land is relatively expensive and there's none to buy. Now I'm thinking about our son Tomek. He might prefer to grow grain and not raise animals. But that would be very hard to do. So, you see, we don't have a lot of room for maneuver. All the equipment is pretty expensive. If Tomek wants to remain connected to the farm -- and he still hasn't made up his mind -- we don't know if it will even pay to do so.

Husband: But you asked what changed. Very little changed.

Wife: The equipment got expensive. Before it was cheap, before 1989. Everything was cheaper then.

Husband: Yes, but --

Wife: But you got paid right away.

Husband: As my wife said, in 1989 goods were produced, they were sold, and you got money at the end. Immediately. And now, after these changes, a bunch of cheaters started to move into agriculture. After two weeks, a month, the payments weren't made and in the end the firm disappeared somewhere and some people declared bankruptcy, and it was just unfair. So, that changed. We would sell goods and not get paid.

But now, actually, the situation has changed so that we get a remittance and after two or three weeks, we get paid. The situation has stabilized. But still the main problem is that farmers here in Poland, because of politics, didn't get any stake in meat-processing plants like in Denmark or where farmers are part of cooperatives. We don't have that here. We have dairies where farmers are shareholders and they get dividends. But farmers who produce pork or lamb are not shareholders in the meat-processing firms. And also they don't have any influence over the prices or the bonuses or the dividends.

Wife: Especially over prices. We sell where we can get a good price. But there's not a lot of choice. One place is cheaper today, another tomorrow but it's a lot further away. It used to be that old clients were predictable. Now you have to wheel and deal.

Husband: When the changes took place and firms collapsed, it was precisely the farmers who suffered. And later it was obvious who was opening things up here: various city slickers who had capital. And we knew all about them. For a farmer in Poland, during those years of Communism or socialism or whatever you call it, there wasn't general poverty. Farming was normal: food was produced normally. We had private producers in Poland. That's why I say that there wasn't anything new with these changes, with privatization. All the time we were working privately.
Progress certainly came to the countryside, as in the entire EU. The first thing that came to the countryside were telephones.

Wife: That was in 1990. And only the mayor had a telephone.

Husband: And now everyone has a cellphone. And that's great.

Wife: There's another plus that I'd like to boast about. We work quickly now because we pay our bills electronically. We don't have to involve an accountant because everything is computerized. Through the telephone, we can connect to the Internet, pay our bills, read things on screen, make our sowing plans - all on the computer.

Husband: The invoices, the payments: everything is on the computer.

That's the way it is in America as well these days in the countryside. When I was a kid, there was no Internet, no cell phone.

Husband: Exactly.

So it was a completely different situation for agriculture 30 years ago.

For the rest of the interview, click here.