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.”
Are you involved in Polish politics?
Husband: Listen, I’m not in any party. I am not participating. It just makes me laugh. The only organization I’m part of is the volunteer fire brigade. There’s a fire brigade in every village. I don’t belong to any party. Also I have nothing to hide. I’m kidding around, but when the changes started, I was in a store and after a while someone said, “My business has been around for 10 years.” And I said, “Well, my business has been around for 100 years.” We’re a family business.
How many pigs do you have?
Husband: We have 90 sows in an enclosed environment. And we fatten them up in the pens. We don’t buy the piglets. We only have the mothers, the sows.
And you sell the piglets?
Husband: No, no. We raise the piglets and later confine them. If someone buys piglets from Denmark or Holland, they buy them at around 30 kilos, keep them in an open space, fatten them up and sell them. But we have them in an enclosed space from day one.
So, how many pigs do you end up selling?
Husband: We sell around 1,600.
Wife: Don’t overdo it. Around 1,200 or 1,300.
Husband: Maybe 1,300.
Husband: Annually. From these sows.
Wife: About eight sows give birth at a time.
Husband: But we also see Poland heading in a particular direction, toward depending on imported piglets from the West. The production’s easier if you just buy the piglets and the feed. But with these sows, it requires greater knowledge and more work. You have to get up in the middle of the night, you have to provide more medical treatment, and so on.
Wife: These piglets were cheap. So people got rid of their sows, and just bought the piglets. But now the price of the piglets is going up. And to start again from scratch with sows, well, that requires a lot of money and work.
The sows are more expensive?
Husband: You have to build them a special building. There has to be a delivery room.
Wife: And you have to work to get them to grow and produce piglets. When Poland entered the European Union, people just tore down those buildings and facilities.
And if you tear down these structures, there’s no going back.
Husband: The most expensive building is for delivering the piglets. And many of those have been destroyed. It’s just like with our shipyards. Once you tear it down, you don’t rebuild it. And the people with the experience, who know how to do these things, once there’s a break, then it’s not so easy for them to –
Wife: And we don’t have time for that. So, these people buy piglets, breed them, and get money for them. But now we’re just beginning to be able to catch up to them. It’s now more expensive to get these piglets, and it’s already cheaper for us to raise them, but we’ll see what happens in the future. But certainly it’s frustrating, for instance, that the state wants to subsidize sows when you have 150 or more. 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.
Husband: All the time people talk about healthy food. 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.
Wife: And as you know, the smell can be something awful.
Famer: Here we don’t have big spaces like they have elsewhere. Certainly you’ve seen that the buildings here are compact, smaller, just big enough for the smaller-scale breeding.
And you don’t use any chemical antibiotics?
Husband: Of course we use antibiotics if there’s a medical problem, but we don’t use them to assist with growth.
And the larger farms do?
Husband: Yes. And all the piglets that come here from the West are peppered with antibiotics.
Wife: They have their own methods. But that’s not what we do. If they get sick, they get some antibiotic in water. But in general no.
Husband: It’s the same with humans. We have here veterinarians who take a sample of the water and the feed and make an assessment.
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.
So it was a completely different situation for agriculture 30 years ago.
Husband: I was in the States in 1993. It was just at the time there was the first attack on the World Trade Center, when they drove a truck underneath the Center. I was in several states. When I was in Iowa, there was a basketball game, between students. After the game, I went to a café and there was a professor from Iowa, from the university. He said he remembered when the area was meadows, and they used horses instead of machines, agricultural tools like rakes, and so on. In the States.
Wife: Here we had to wait a little longer.
Husband: Progress came to America as well. And it came here later.
Wife: Particularly with computers. For me, as you can imagine, it was very fast and intensive. It was hard to keep up, as a woman.
Husband: As I said, I was in Norway for three months. It was a shock for me because I’d got to a store with this farmer and he would buy two little screws. Why two screws? 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.
But at the moment we’re in the same situation. I go somewhere and buy what I need. I don’t have to buy a lot. I can buy only two screws or even just one. It used to be that there was a machine supply shop in Poland and you needed an ID, which they checked at the entrance before letting you in. And now you go in a car and no one checks you at the door. That has changed. Now for instance if they don’t have something I can telephone and in a half hour they bring it to me. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that. That’s the kind of changes that have taken place.
Wife: For instance, we’d go to an office somewhere and they’d treat us like intruders, like people of the worst category. That’s how we felt. It was humiliating for us. And now, you go to the mart, you choose a machine, you buy it or not, and it’s elegant, they offer you tea or coffee. It’s completely different.
Husband: Now for example we go to the veterinarian. It’s cheap because it’s a free market. It’s a private practice. And 20 years ago, there were fewer animals. There was one place for medical care and there were three or five doctors and you went there because you had to and they were like dictators. Now the situation is that the doctors are like a family doctor. It’s a business, of course. But you call up on your cell phone, “Hello, Heniu, I have a sick animal,” and it could be Sunday or a holiday or 2 a.m. and they say, “Come on in.”
Wife: There are a lot of costs connected to this production – really a lot of costs – including the veterinarian.
Husband: I can say that back then there wasn’t less farming, but there was less movement of animals. Now with these imports, the illnesses comes along for the ride, with the animals. So there has to be more medical care and the costs have gone up.
After entering the EU, what changed? And what did you have to change?
Wife: Now, from this year, we have this declaration of compliance. Everything, your fields, your fertilizer, it all has to be in compliance – in other words, it’s controlled. The animals must be appropriately housed: the pigs should be in suitable pens of a suitable size.
Husband: Screens are required.
Wife: Next there are veterinary inspections, according to their own formula. There have to be mats, etc. This was all introduced gradually several years ago. But now, from this year, it’s all obligatory. There’s a booklet, a farmer’s card, with all the regulations.
We were fortunate that our pig farm was already at a high standard. So, for instance, you can’t feed all the pigs out of one trough. We already had 10 troughs. Our pens were not too small. And so on. And other things we eventually changed. Each of the regulations has narrow application. So, we’ll see. This year, we have regulations over feed and water, and also the water supply. They took samples, wrote up protocols. The district veterinarian was here. We’re waiting. We’re not worried because we don’t use antibiotics.
Husband: In general, it’s a lot of bureaucracy – stacks of files. In Poland you have to record evidence of treatment and registry of animals: when they were born, sold. Everything you have to record.
Wife: Things are done separately in Lowicz and here, and they must agree. It’s good that Tomek is bright and we can send things electronically. We had a situation last year where we filled out the cards but they weren’t received.
Husband: But that was a very specific situation.
Wife: But as I said, it was an example where my husband sent something and later it wasn’t in Lowicz. But now because you can deliver things electronically so they agree. But these regulations, it means a lot more work.
Husband: These requirements, these papers, if there’s a sentence that’s wrong or even a period out of place, then there’s going to be a discrepancy. Because Lodz is the biggest city around here, it’s where the office of the agricultural agency for the whole region is located.
Wife: It’s the one institution that doesn’t respect farmers. This agricultural agency should be an advisory body and they’re very nasty.
Wife: You go there like a convict. If something goes wrong for you or you still have a problem, you go there.
Husband: But they treat you terribly.
Wife: It’s the only institution. It’s depressing.
And they’re responsible for the financing?
Husband: They’re the authority. They say yes or we’ll see or no, and that’s it.
Wife: The truth is that the EU is terribly demanding. They give farmers a subsidy according to number of hectares, payments to young farmers. Now it seems that we have to pay a lot of money because the Agency looked at things very closely in order not to give back any money.
And that causes all those stacks of papers.
Wife: Yes, and it’s necessary to go to Lodz for just one matter.
Husband: But I’ll tell you one thing. On entering the EU the financing of particular farmers, of machines and equipment, suddenly it resulted in agricultural debt.
Wife: The debt in the countryside is huge.
Husband: And it’s all artificial, in my mind.
Wife: Some farmers think logically and buy the machine only if it’s necessary. 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.
And before there wasn’t a lot of equipment?
Husband: Absolutely not. From the point of view of machinery and equipment, after entering the EU there was a lot of equipment here and the machine stores got rich. There’s a lot more precision equipment, not just simple machines.
Wife: And to use these machines, you need more land, at least 100 hectares. And there are problems with the land. There isn’t enough of it.
Husband: For us it’s not a problem.
Wife: There’s a lot of competition. You can go to the seaside and try to grow things there.
There’s fallow land there?
Husband: And here there’s no available land.
Wife: Where there were large state farms, farmers used the land. Even one of our acquaintances did. With the state farm, you got 100 hectares, you got credit, but now you have to pay it back. The percentage is high but it was possible, because the land wasn’t that expensive. But for us there was no such possibility. There were no state farms nearby.
What should the Polish government do in terms of agriculture?
Wife: We as farmers have to rebel a bit for our voices to be heard.
Husband: The decisions were made very quickly.
Wife: In terms of what the government should do, above all, it should better defend our country in the competition with other countries. Our agricultural subsidies are by far the lowest in the EU. People out there hear how much money farmers get, so much per year, right? But if we compare the subsidy with the growth in costs of production, particularly fertilizer and also fuel, though the two are related. And because the older EU members have higher subsidies, it’s as if we’re back to the beginning.
Which European countries are the biggest producers?
Husband: The Danes. Denmark, Holland. Denmark is the powerhouse.
Wife: It will take us to 2020 to get to their level. But that’s just a dream.
In terms of production?
Wife: No, in terms of the level of subsidy. To get to that level, it will take us until 2020, but I don’t really believe it. We’ll probably always have less. When they have higher and higher subsidies, what can we do?
Husband: You know what they say, that if the farms in the West started to function like ours at this moment, it wouldn’t be worth it for them. They have these higher subsidies. They work hard, but they all have these subsidies. And to compete with them when we have lower subsidies from the beginning, of course we’ll lose.
Wife: They’ve already bought everything. And we can’t chase them. There one way out, someone said, which is to establish these associations in order that we’d be in a better position to negotiate prices. But I don’t know if that’s realistic.
Husband: They exist. They’re emerging.
Wife: But it’s necessary to hire an accountant, establish an office.
Husband: If we’re talking about such associations, here Poles are biased against them because there used to be cooperatives that were very similar. And people don’t want that.
Wife: And there are costs. Because you have to have an office, an accountant, a director, a cleaner, a caretaker. These additional costs will eat up all that you earn. So, as to what the government should do. I don’t know, there are some kind of price agreements, for instance for the production of artificial fertilizers. That’s how they determine the prices. I don’t know how many there are in Poland.
Husband: We should talk about insurance. At the moment the costs are so high it’s unreal. And this government hasn’t done anything about it. Our animals were insured at some point in the past but not now, because the costs are so high.
Here’s what the government should do: protect us from unhealthy competition. With the West. For example, I know that we make a good product. I’m talking about meat. But there was a situation, it was only rumors but there was some truth to it, that in the cold storage where the meat is stored there are some inferior products that “businessmen” bought for a pittance. Suddenly the price of meat falls and they bought somewhere cheap meat of bad quality. This shouldn’t be. My product is good, it should be priced and bought at a good price. But then there’s this other business, which is just a rip-off.
Wife: And it has a “made in Poland” stamp on it.
Husband: That should be the main job of the government. It should watch over things. It shouldn’t interfere. It should help. And it shouldn’t help our competitors.
Wife: In Germany there was the dioxin affair. It was a terrible thing but it was handled quickly. No one was at risk because the German meat wasn’t sold. In Poland, if something like that happened, there would be a snag and for three months nothing would be bought. Poland doesn’t have any kind of management to defend against such a thing.
Husband: We don’t have here in Poland people responsible for defending us, people who have the power to wave their hand and help farmers. Farmers can’t just think about their buildings and equipment. They have to also think about their children’s education and so on. They have to live. It’s not just about the machinery.
Wife: My husband’s no longer a spring chicken. 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.
Last question: what do you think the future of farming will be for the next generation?
Wife: Our son still hasn’t decided what to do, though he should have already.
Husband: My colleagues work in the city in various professions and they retire there. And I tell them that here in the countryside there’s a rule that you work as long as you can. Here as long as you have strength you don’t retire.
Wife: And you’d live with a pension?
Husband: It’s the work itself that matters. As long as I have the strength, I’ll continue to do it. But of course the smaller farms will eventually be absorbed.
Wife: Not least because of the computerization. Whether you want to or not…
Husband: Another aspect is that 20 years ago divorce was unthinkable in the countryside. It was shameful. Marriage was important to maintain the farmstead. And now, the situation is that a guy will get married and the wife will just leave, say goodbye to the farmer, the farm falls apart and gets sold. Twenty years ago, there were misunderstandings but it was shameful to divorce. And now we have a new generation. No means no: goodbye.
Wife: And women in particular find it all hard to endure: the smell of the animals, doing the laundry. It can be really discouraging. And there are a lot of young men who don’t want to bring girls out to the farm to live. Like our son hopes that a girl will be intelligent and so on, but most don’t want to work in the countryside, only in the city.
Husband: These are all details, but they all fit together in a whole.
Wife: Here we live in the middle of several such born farmers. There are those who return to the farm. The work attracts them. They finish middle school and don’t want to go any further with school. They’ll be farmers and they love the work. There are some like that.
Husband: My neighbor, when did he like school? When it was closed. But unfortunately, in the countryside also there must be education.
Wife: We’re living in an era of computers. If you don’t go to school you won’t find out about these things. There are those who are keen on learning from their mothers and fathers, generation upon generation. But it seems to me that that’s not enough. To get up to the proper level, you have to finish your studies.
Husband: I was giving you the example of emigration from the countryside. That’s the population in general. In our parish, 20 years ago, there were about 4,500 inhabitants. Today it’s about 2,000. It’s fallen by half. Every year we have 50 deaths and 25 births. Half. So, there’s no growth. You can imagine where that’s heading.
They’re leaving for the cities.
Wife: You can only imagine what problems we have here. For instance, after the changes, with the privatization of the state farms and enterprises, swindlers came here, not farmers. And you can hear on the radio or watch on TV that a person has 300 hectares, but they’re not a farmer. They arrange credit. They use the credit and now they’re a businessman. And we can’t catch up with them. To buy equipment costs millions. Even one piece of machinery costs… Well, I guess they’re smarter than we are.
Husband: Honest people make money over the years. But it’s the short-term thievery that we don’t like.
Wyborow, August 14, 2013