PIASKI SZLACHECKIE, Poland -- The farmers began arriving in late afternoon, riding in a dozen at a time in tractor-drawn wooden wagons or packed into mud-spattered cars that sagged on their axles. The meeting was at the old brick schoolhouse, where the yard was jammed and the crowd overflowed onto the road.

For the last month, most of the farmers in this district in southeastern Poland have been on strike--keeping their meat and milk off the market, preferring, they say, to pour cream in the hog troughs rather than sell it to the government for a price that no longer makes sense.

Upstairs, in a cramped second-floor assembly room still decorated with the crepe paper of a school dance, Josef Wronski, a longtime activist farmer, was already locked in debate with a score of men, trying to make himself heard over the bleating of loudspeakers that were appealing to farmers outside to keep the road clear and trying to hold his own with Gabriel Janowski, the Farmers' Solidarity representative sent down from Warsaw. It was going to be a long night.

And, as with most matters in Polish politics, richly complicated.

On the surface, the farmers were meeting here to decide whether to continue their strike.

But a mere scratch below that surface something more was at stake, for this was the opening round in Poland's first almost free election campaign in the memory of almost everyone present. It was the first skirmish in the battle for the hearts and minds of Polish farmers.

As the meeting here showed, Farmers' Solidarity has the clear edge against a government and Communist Party Establishment that, the farmers say, has presided for 40 years over the "destruction" of Polish agriculture. But, as the meeting also showed, it is going to be no political cakewalk for Solidarity.

Janowski, the Farmers' Solidarity man from Warsaw, got a taste of the situation's delicacy at the height of the meeting when someone bellowed at him from the floor:

"Who elected you?"

Chagrined, Janowski could only say, a bit later, "I like it. It shows democracy is coming alive again."

The tricky part for Solidarity stemmed from the fact that it had nothing to do with the origins of the strike, which was launched by the farmers' "circles," state-sanctioned official farmers' organizations. The task for Solidarity, beginning here in Piaski Szlasceckie, was to get control of the strike movement, damp it down, and use it to its own advantage in organizing for the elections.

Such fancy footwork was called for because the Solidarity federation, throughout its now-concluded "round-table" negotiations with the Polish government, actively discouraged strikes of any kind, helping maintain the generally peaceful atmosphere that accompanied the discussions and leading to a historic set of wide-ranging agreements, including the elections to be held in June.

Against this prevailing mood of sweet reason, pressure for strikes came mainly from the hard-line Communist camp, hoping that any rocking of the political boat would work against the Solidarity-led opposition and reinforce a hard-line backlash.

Whatever the inspiration, the strike call hit a raw nerve with thousands of Polish farmers, and the strike spread, with varying concentrations, across 20 vojvodships , or districts, in Poland.

"We're sick of it," said Florian Wysniawski, a farmer who stood in the schoolyard in a packed circle of neighbors, their faces reddened by the sun and rising indignation.

'Our Farms in Ruins'

"Forty years," said one, "and all they have done is leave our farms in ruins."

"They've raised our taxes," said Wysniawski. "The price of fertilizer has gone up 150%--and even then you can't get it. Equipment has gone up 300%. What do they expect? They expect us to sell our milk for 100 zlotys a liter and a bottle of beer costs 250. They expect us to sell a pig for 50,000 and it costs 90,000 to raise a pig."

"They're always telling us that farmers are going to be important," said another man, "and always we are last."