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Traditional Organic Farming in Poland Threatened by EU Laws

STRYSZOW, Poland: Depending on your point of view, Szczepan Master is either an incorrigible Luddite or a visionary. A small farmer, proud of his pure, high-quality products, he works his land the way Polish farmers have for centuries.

He keeps his livestock in a straw-floored "barn" that is part of his house, entered through a kitchen door. He slaughters his own pigs. His wife milks cows by hand. He rejects genetically modified seeds. Instead of spraying his crops, he turns his fields in winter, preferring a workhorse to a tractor, to let the frost kill off pests residing there.

While traditional farms like his could be dismissed as a nostalgic throwback, they are also increasingly seen as the future - if only they can survive.

Master's way of farming - his way of life - has been badly threatened in the two years since Poland joined the European Union, a victim of sanitary laws and mandates to encourage efficiency and competition that favor mechanized commercial farms, farmers here say.

That conflict obviously matters to Master. But it is also of broader importance, environmental groups and agriculture experts say, as worries over climate change grow and more consumers in both Europe and the United States line up for locally grown, organic produce.

For reasons social, culinary and environmental, small farms like Master's should be promoted, or least protected, they say. Not only do they yield tastier foods but they also produce few of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and put little other pressure on the environment.

In part because Poland has remained one of the last strongholds of small farming in Europe, it is also a rare bastion of biodiversity, with 40,000 pairs of nesting storks and thousands of seed varieties that exist nowhere else in the world.

But European Union laws are designed for another universe of farming, and Polish farmers say they have left them at a steep disadvantage.

If they want to sell their products, for example, EU law requires farms to have cement floors in their barns and special equipment for slaughtering. Milking cows by hand is forbidden. As a result, the milk collection stations and tiny slaughterhouses that until just a few years ago dotted the Polish countryside have closed. Small family farming is all but impossible.

"We need to reward them for being ahead of the game, rather than behind it," said Julian Rose, an organic farmer from Britain who, with his Polish partner, Jadwiga Lopata, founded the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside and has been fighting the regulations.

"The EU has adopted the same efficiency approach to food as it has to autos and microchips," Lopata said. "Those who can produce the most are favored. Everything is happening the reverse of what it should be if care about food and the environment."

The small farmers who have rallied behind the coalition here in southwest Poland have touched a sensitive nerve and gained broad influence.

Lopata received the Goldman Prize for the environment for her quest to preserve traditional farms. Prince Charles visited her farm (by helicopter) with its solar panels and the black sheep (responsible for mowing the grass) in the yard.

All 16 states of Poland have banned genetically modified organisms in defiance of European Union and Word Trade Organization mandates. The Polish Agriculture Ministry announced earlier this year that it planned to ban their import in animal fodder, another refusal to accept EU policy.

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