Determination brings results in Poland

In 1994 Scottish brothers Mark and Simon Laird were among the first UK people to gain a farming toehold in Poland. Now they have a 3000ha (7400-acre) potato farm in the north-east of the country. Janina Struk charted their progress.

Mark Laird looks out across the flat dusty fields of his 3,000ha (7400-acre) potato farm near Torun in north west Poland and muses on the snags of farming in Poland. It hasn't rained for three months and the harvest will be hard. The climate is extreme, with very cold winters and hot dry summers.

There are extremes too in the post-communist economy, with high inflation and currency fluctuation, though it is starting to stabilise. But for Scottish brothers Mark and Simon Laird, farming in Poland has been a success. In five years they have taken over and completely revolutionised three big farms, turning them from run-down state enterprises to profitable mechanised businesses.

The brothers first went to eastern Europe in search of opportunities in 1990. They were both young, in their twenties, and looking for something more adventurous than working on their beef and cereal family farm near Forfar, Scotland. Mark had just graduated from the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, Simon was a surveyor and property investor. They picked on Poland, says Mark, for the challenge.

"Everything here was on its knees. We could see that there was only one direction that things were going to go and that was up. Compared to other eastern European countries it seemed like the country which was advancing the fastest. There was a rapid privatisation programme under way and the legal structures were in place. It was shock therapy for Poland but it is now paying off".

In 1992 the Polish government established the State Treasury Agricultural Property Agency (AWRSP) to privatise state-held farms which amounted to around 4 million hectares, but they did not just hand them over to anyone who came along. It took the Laird brothers two years to get their first farm. They travelled Poland extensively looking at farms, and decided on one near Gdansk in the north, which is one of the richest agricultural regions. It was a good farm in a good location, and the AWRSP was not keen to let them have it. Their application was initially turned down.

However, their determination eventually paid off, said Mark: "After a lot of discussions we convinced both local farmers and the government that we were serious, that we weren't just coming here with big ideas and then disappearing. Eventually a mutual respect developed on both sides". The farm was prepared for privatisation and in March 1994 they made an application through a sealed-bid auction in which the Lairds were up against a Polish bank. And they won. They began farming at Lisewo in July.

The following year they leased Barenty, a neighbouring farm, and in June 1997, in partnership with an English company looking to invest in farms in Poland, put in a bid for the lease of 3,000ha (7400 acre) Zegart farm at Zegartowice, near Torun. They were competing with Polish and Danish companies.

Mark Laird explains: "We put in a sealed offer for the lease, declaring what rent we were going to pay, how many quintals we would produce per hectare, the payment terms for buying the assets and the terms we were offering the farm workers".

"We won because ours were the best financial terms but also because we had already signed a social package with the two trade unions, Solidarnosc and the ZZPR, the old communist agricultural union. We agreed to guarantee all the employees work for three years, not to break up the farm and to make a substantial investment in it, which we've done".

Twenty per cent of Polish farms were owned by the state under communism, but in 1989 all subsidies for state farms ceased and the banks stopped providing loans. Farmers were left to fend for themselves with no money to invest.

The situation for farm workers was desperate. At Zegartowice there had been demonstrations in the early 1990s. They wanted the farm kept intact and they wanted investment and the Laird brothers agreed to both.

"When we succeeded in buying the lease there was a fantastic amount of work to do", says Mark Laird. "It was completely run down. The quality of the land had deteriorated and there were no fertilisers".

As a state farm it employed 750 people, but when the Lairds took over there were only 218 workers left. Of these a further 28 left through natural wastage. In 1999 the Lairds put together a voluntary redundancy package which a further 50 workers took up.

But they don't pay badly. The monthly basic wage is 1,000 zloty's (about £150), which is above the national average wage. On top of this there is a lot of overtime, with some workers doing up to 2000 hours a year. They also provide subsidised meals for the 140 workers, which are delivered to wherever they are - in the fields, farm buildings or warehouses. "We save time and they get a decent meal so they are very happy with that", says Mark Laird - despite the Polish tradition of a leisurely lunch.

Simon Laird takes care of the financial side of things, visiting about once every three weeks, while Mark takes care of the day- to-day running of the farms with the help of two managers from the UK. British managers were chosen for the simple reason that few Poles have the skills for mechanised farming.

Their main crop is potatoes. Annual production at Zegart farm is around 24,000t of potatoes and 10,000t of cereals. It is fast production for the fast food industry. Within Poland they sell to PepsiCo. Foods and Farm Frites, the latter supplying chips to Macdonald's right across central Europe.

They also have their own transport and packing companies which wash, size and package the potatoes before selling them to supermarkets in Poland. Exports go to Russia - though this market suffered in 1998 because of the economic crisis – as well as to Romania and Dutch Guyana.

Zegart Farm was fully mechanised from the start, from planting through irrigation to harvesting and storage. They have the only two linear irrigation machines in the whole of Poland - one here and one at the farm near Gdansk. In a country where agriculture is in deep crisis, their state-of-the-art machinery - bought in the UK or from foreign dealers in Poland - is the kind that local farmers can only dream of.

More than a quarter of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector but the majority of farms are small, ill equipped and family run generating only 6 per cent of GDP. Throughout 1999 farmers have been holding protests and strikes to put pressure on government to stop cheap agricultural products coming in across the border from neighbouring countries where agriculture is heavily subsidised. Even Minister of Agriculture Artur Balazs admits that Polish farmers would have difficulties making profits on an open market.

Mark Laird doesn't agree with strikes but he supports the farmers' demands and even had meals delivered to those who blocked local roads. He also doesn't agree with subsidies for agriculture. "I would like to see all subsidies taken away throughout Europe, so everyone is competing in a free market".

But when Poland joins the EU, possibly in the next few years, that is unlikely to happen and the Laird brothers could find themselves receiving EU subsidies. They will also gain access to export markets which will make a huge difference; at present trade with EU countries is restricted.

Mark Laird drives around Zegart farm, as flat as the Prairies, in his UK-registered Cherokee Jeep. From time to time he stops to speak to the workers along the way, in Polish. He's learnt the language on the farms and manages, he says, to get by. What do the farm workers think about having a foreign boss? It is all down to money: "If workers are getting paid once a month in Poland they don't mind who their boss is."

But he doesn't feel wholly foreign. The Scots have a long tradition of trading in Poland; there were grain traders in Poland as far back as the 17th century.

So Mark Laird feels he is carrying on a Scottish tradition in Poland. He loves the country, its history and its people: "Poland is a major part of Europe. It has played a large role in the past and it probably will in the future". With their eye now on other farms in other parts of the country, the Laird brothers will, no doubt, be part of that future.

© Janina Struk, 1999