When you think of small European villages, you think of crowded market squares and stalls piled high with fresh meats and fragrant produce. You can almost hear the farmers' wives chatting up the customers and extolling the quality of today's rutabagas.
But the concept of a farmers market is something foreign and mysterious to Polish farmers, according to Baltimore County Extension Agent G. Richard Curran, on a six-month tour of duty in Poland with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After nearly 50 years of communism, he said, Polish farmers must be taught how to market their own produce.
"I'm going tomorrow to a town where I've met twice with the farmers' wives. Sixteen of them are forming a small cooperative, and we're going to help them set up markets so they can sell their vegetables and fruits," Mr. Curran said in a recent telephone interview.
It's a departure from the old way of doing business, when the government would buy farmers' produce directly at a fixed price.
"Under Communist rule, they knew they'd make enough money to eat and have clothes on their backs, and that's about it. Now we're trying to help them be more like our farmers, and if they manage well, and they have good seed, there's no limit to what they can make."
Mr. Curran, 63, who lives in Westminster, is a 23-year veteran of the Cooperative Extension Service. He is serving in the Baltic port city of Gdansk with John Jordan, a Clemson University economist, on the last six-month segment of a two-year project organized by the USDA, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Polish government.
Its goal is to help the Poles strengthen the Osrodek Doradztwa Rolniczego (ODR) -- their equivalent of the extension service -- so that it can help farmers move to free-market agriculture.
Wicomico County livestock agent Susan Schoenian is another of the 10 U.S. extension specialists in Poland. She is working near ++ the German-Czech border. Their tour ends in July.
"It's worked out so well for me," Mr. Curran said. "I'm having a good time, and I believe we're getting a lot accomplished."
He is assigned to Gdansk province. It is about 2 1/2 times the size of Baltimore County, but contains some 37,000 small farms, compared with about 1,000 in Baltimore County.
"There are still some state-operated farms in the province," he said, "but I guess about 70 to 80 percent of the land is controlled by private landholders."
Most of the farms are small, 20 acres on the average, compared with a 100-acre average in Baltimore County. These small farms have struggled during the conversion to free markets because the farm families eat most of what they raise.
"They have some chickens, ducks, geese, a hog or two and a beef animal. And they grow potatoes and might have a dairy cow or two. We're trying to help them increase production enough so there is extra to sell to . . . make additional income so that eventually they can buy a tractor or a new truck."
It can be a tough sell, Mr. Curran said. "These people are so accustomed to the former way of doing business, they just don't understand . . . and they need encouragement."
For example, the extension service is trying to encourage the formation of cooperatives, groups of farmers that share ideas and resources, and establish and regulate their own markets.
But the word "cooperative" raises a Red flag. "The co-op they had before, under the Communist government, was really terrible," Mr. Curran said. "It was controlled by the government and the farmers had no active part in it. When we use the word 'co-op,' we have to tell them we're not talking about the old-style co-op."
The cost of loans has been a critical stumbling block. "Most farmers have trouble getting credit for less than 40 or 45 percent," Mr. Curran said. "If they file a business plan, they can get low credit -- 15 or 20 percent -- but it's very difficult to do. So they don't have the money to operate with -- money for fertilizer, for seed, to buy equipment. It's really tough for them."
There is also a need for improved varieties of crops. Mr. Curran said that better potatoes, for example, might help Polish farmers compete to produce a share of the crops that would be needed by a french-fry processing plant that foreign interests have proposed in Poland. For now, he said, Dutch interests in the plant are likely to bring in their own potatoes.
Other goals of the extension service project have been the encouragement of rural beautification and "agri-tourism" projects designed to attract badly needed visitors and their hard currency.
Mr. Curran and his Polish counterparts have selected 80 farms in Gdansk province that will be marketed to European tourists looking for an inexpensive rural "bed and breakfast" experience.
"And we're encouraging people to fix up their homes and villages and make them more attractive," he said.
Villages in the province "have a sort of gray cast to them," Mr. Curran said. They lack the red tile roofs, painted homes and ubiquitous flowers that make most of Western Europe so colorful and charming. Poland is still dominated by boxy, flat-roofed buildings made of cinder blocks and brick.
Mr. Curran said the USDA project has been well-received.
"It's just tremendous," he said. "We have been taken to some of the farms, and they treat us like kings, with big meals and plenty to drink."
And the farmers are eager for help. "They're looking to us. . . . I think they will follow our lead," he said.
When they ask whether U.S. farmers live like the people they see on TV shows such as "Dynasty," "I say there might be one or two, but most aren't like that," Mr. Curran said.
"I try to give them as straight an answer as I can," he said. "I tell them that American farmers right now have income that would be much higher than theirs. But I try to encourage them, and say, 'We're here to help you with better management practices, and sometime you also will be doing well.' "