Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Capitalism And The Demise Of Polish Farmers

August 16, 1999

I had the opportunity to fly to Poland and subsequently took a train ride to the Czech Republic and then back to Poland again. Flying into Poland was a visual feast as I looked down at cultivated land. In rural Poland the homes were arranged in rows on each side of a road with long rectangular strips of land behind each home. The houses were tall and boxy or short and boxy. From the air, the Polish countryside looked like a giant monopoly board with rows of houses stretching from Mediterranean Avenue to Boardwalk.

I asked about the pattern of land use. I was surprised to learn that some Polish farmers retained private ownership even under Soviet communism and occupation. I shared my work as a psychologist helping North American farmers cope with threatened economic dislocation because of the unrestrained market economy.

Polish famers face competition. My Polish hosts explained that Poland is about to join the European Economic Union. Polish farmers will have to compete with the rest of the farmers of Europe. There is worry about farmers being forced off their family land because they will need to compete on a much larger scale. My hosts felt relevant psychological services are needed in Poland as much as in the United States and Canada.

In other sectors of the economy, the people I visited with liked the changes in their country - especially the freedom from fear and control of communism. They also liked the emerging market economy. Slowly but surely capitalism is taking hold and improving the quality of life. I didn't talk to a single person in Poland, Czech or Russia who felt communism worked. As hard as life is in a transition economy with pervasive unemployment, people embrace the market economy.

Modern economies have flourished with cheap food. Cheap food frees up the rest of society to engage in other economic activities. The rest of society benefits from cheap food.

High volume, lost cost producers win. Technology and globalization push agriculture to higher and higher levels of productivity. The people who get hurt are the people who can't produce enough food cheap enough. The casualties of this system will be the smaller and middle-sized farmers who can't compete on an industrial scale.

Family-oriented agriculture, love of the land and love of farming probably are the most emotional battlegrounds where globalization disrupts a valued and admired way of life. It is no wonder that governments are caught in the dilemma of wanting to compete globally in agriculture and still protect the interests of their small farmers.

In visiting with Ken Root, host of the radio show AgriTalk, about my experiences in Eastern Europe, he recounted the history of an elderly Polish farmer he had met and admired who was able to hold on to his farm under all the pressures of communism. We both recoiled at the sad irony that Polish family farmers like him survived communism but probably would not survive capitalism.

Right now, North American farmers who depend on export markets for good prices are in an emotional free fall. This shock is due to abundant world-wide supplies, trade barriers, and a lower demand due to the economic setbacks in Asian markets. As a country, the US is the biggest proponent free market agriculture. As a system, the free market makes its own corrections. It is harder for this country to abandon its principles to protect a segment of the economy while trying to sell the rest of the world on free trade. We can't have it both ways.

Our country will cushion the blow but not tamper with the basic free market principles. The free market will eventually overtake protectionist countries because of the expense of subsidizing an inefficient agriculture. From time to time, like now, farmers reap a harvest of pain.

Capitalism goes global. Journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a book, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," about the power and triumph of the global capitalistic economy. Other ideologies have failed in their attempt to soften the brutality of capitalism and yet still produce steadily rising standards of living.

Friedman believes, "The strongest backlash against globalization comes not from the poorest segments of the population, but rather from the `used-to-bes’ in the middle and lower middle classes who found a great deal of security in the protected communist, socialist and welfare systems." He further states, "The angriest person in the world is not someone who has lost his job. The angriest person in the world is someone who feels cheated out of the savings earned from his job. "

On my train ride through the Czech Republic, I met an engineer who was on his way to spend his vacation working at his family dacha or country garden. We talked about the global economy and the pressure being brought to bear on agriculture, both in North America and in Europe. We talked of the virtues of family farming and the imminent changes facing farmers in his country. On the subject of global agriculture, my traveling companion made the statement that it was a shame the governing powers couldn't get together and protect the small farmer.

That was a simple but profound answer. In an era of globalization, all countries together would have to agree to restrain their agriculture as a value choice to help preserve this way of life. It was a good answer but not a likely one to happen.