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Small-scale agricultural production in urban areas in Poland

Jerry Kleer
University of Warsaw

The history of small-scale food production in Polish towns and cities is already more than 100 years old. Generally speaking, one may identify two reasons for this phenomenon: it is a relatively cheap source of fruits and vegetables and, equally important, it provides recreation. While these factors have remained more or less unchanged, both the scale and mode of the operations have undergone far-reaching transformations.

At present, about 900,000 worker allotment gardens in urban areas in Poland are producing food on a small or very small scale. Over the last five years this number noticeably expanded by approximately 50 per cent, and another 700,000 families await the alloment of a small garden or the possibility of purchasing one. If one adds to the urban allotment gardens the household plots on state and cooperative farms in rural areas, we find that in the mid-1980s this mode of production involved the cultivation of some 402,000 hectares of farmland, which represented 2.1 per cent of the country's total agricultural area.

These gardens involve, to a varying degree, some 2.7 million families, which represents over one-fourth of the country's population. The output of the gardens is estimated to represent approximately 6.2 per cent of total agricultural production, which corresponds roughly to the respective share in the production of food. The allotment gardens are, for the most part, very well organized according to extensive legislation, from parliamentary law to various regulations, statutes, and guidelines issued by organizations of gardeners. The national organization of allotment gardeners is active throughout the country, and, while its operations and rules of management are of a universal nature, self-management is stressed and the role of the local, elected garden management groups is of major importance.

This production of food on a very small scale is characterized by the following features: the plots are too small to be recognized as farms proper; they do not constitute the principal source of income or maintenance of the gardening families; and only marginal labour is engaged. Nevertheless, the available land and other resources are used intensively, and food is generally consumed directly by the producer families, being healthy and safe to eat as long as the gardens are not located in polluted areas.

The activities of allotment gardens between 1980 and 1985 from a macro-economic point of view are shown by the following figures: the number of gardens increased from 614,000 to 900,000; the area of land cultivated increased from 28,000 to 42,000 hectares; the value of the total output per hectare increased from ZI 236,700 to Zl 264,000 (volume of output in constant prices). The total volume of the output from allotment gardens in constant prices increased from ZI 6.6 billion to ZI 11.1 billion. Finally, the revenues increased from ZI 4.9 billion to Zl 8.3 billion (volume on the basis of constant prices).

Though in most cased the output figures are only estimates, there is no doubt that in the last five years the volume of production and output has greatly expanded. This is due to both extensive development -increases in garden area and number-and intensive development. If one includes the production of food on the household plots of workers on state and co-operative farms, these plots in total occupied an area of 147,000 hectares; there were 1,707,000 of them; and they supplied about 2.3 per cent of total agricultural output. After partial disaggregation, the conclusion is that the production of food in urban centres represents 5 per cent of the total food consumed by the urban population. While it is true that this percentage is not significant with respect to the general level of food supply, it is an important addition to the market supply, and the produce enriches the diets of the participating families.

In comparison to typical agricultural methods, the cultivation techniques employed in the allotment gardens to grow fruits and vegetables are more labour-intensive but save on land and capital. In addition, the work performed in the gardens may only in part be considered productive employment, as it is at the same time a form of recreation. The production costs are thus as a rule lower than those of field agricultural production. The profitability is further augmented by the fact that users of allotment gardens consume the fruit and vegetables they produce, or sell them, thus assuming the wholesale and retail trade margin as well.

In Poland, about 90 per cent of the food is channeled through socialized economy outlets, while only 10 per cent goes through the private market. About 60 per cent is sold at prices decreed by the government, in particular staple foodstuffs such as bread and other cereal products, meat and processed meat products, milk and processed dairy products, fats, and sugar. Approximately 30 per cent of the food is sold at conventional prices, with the balance, 10 per cent, at non-regulated free-market prices. The latter is of marginal character but is quite important for some product groups such as fruits and vegetables, about 30 to 40 per cent of which are traded at free market prices. The prices are thus determined in accordance with supply and demand. These are as a rule the prices of the local market. Long-term analyses of the trends indicate that the prices of the free market do not differ substantially from those in the socialized trade. The impact of free-market prices of fruits and vegetables and of some other food products on the conventional prices on the socialized market is quite explicit. The impact exerted by prices of products originating from allotment gardens is identical.

The production of food on a small scale is historically linked with the various models of nutrition. These are clearly different in the households of industrial workers, non-industrial workers, and retired persons and those supported for various reasons by the national social security system. The impact of the habits and the local environment is clear as well. Table 1 shows selected statistics for 1984, with the revenues and the value of food intake originating from allotment gardens in the three groups.

Research on long-term trends in the consumption of food grown in allotment gardens indicates that after 1980, when the total farm output in Poland dropped substantially, both an absolute and a relative increase took place. In the households of retired and state supported persons in particular, an almost twofold increase was observed, from 113 to 193 kcal per day. Increases occurred also in practically all other nutritional values derived from the allotment gardens between 19781980 and 1984-1985, although they were slightly smaller for industrial and non-industrial worker families' gardens.

For worker families and for retired and state-supported persons, food from the allotment gardens supplied 16-19 per cent and 23-26 per cent of total daily vitamin-C intake, 12-14 per cent and 18-21 per cent of total vitamin-A intake, and 8-9 per cent and 10-14 per cent of total iron intake respectively. The percentage of other nutritional components and energy supplied is smaller, varying between 3 and 9 per cent of total intake. The components supplied in the least amount are energy and fats.

Between 1978 and 1985 the intake of energy and nutritional components originating from gardens increased. In 1985 this intake for the families of retired and state-supported persons was anywhere from 50 to 100 per cent above the levels in worker households. This demonstrates the great importance of the products grown in the gardens for this segment of the population.

TABLE 1. Shares of revenues and of value of food intake derived from allotment gardens. by family type (percentages of totals per family member)

  Revenues Food
Workers' families, total 2.2 5.8
Industrial workers' families 2.5 6.4
Non-industrial worker's families 1.7 4.8
Families of retired persons and those
receiving social security
6.4 12.7

TABLE 2. Intake of nutritional components derived from allotment gardens in workers' households and the households of retired persons and those supported by the social security system - 1978 and 1985

  Workers Retired and social security
1978 1985 1978 1985
Energy (kcal) 80.2 93.2 112.9 192.9
Protein (g) 3.0 3.6 4.3 7.8
Fats (g) 2.8 3.5 3.6 7.7
Carbohydrates (g) 10.6 12.2 15.8 20.8
Calcium (mg) 29.2 34.4 59.5 105.2
Iron (mg) 1.0 1.3 1.4 2.2
vitamin A (Ám) 763.2 1,088.3 1,065.8 1,713.2
Thiamine (mg) 0.083 0.1 0.114 0.188
Riboflavin (mg) 0.076 0.088 0.124 0.217
vitamin C (mg) 12.6 17.2 17.9 26.5

Of the major food groups (cereals, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, meat products, fats, milk and dairy products, and eggs), the ones in which food from allotment gardens plays the largest part in the house hold budgets of worker families are vegetables (13-18 per cent of the total intake), potatoes also 13-18 per cent), and fruits 110-16 per cent). In the households of retired and state-supported persons, foods grown in the gardens represent a greater percentage of total intake, with milk and dairy products and eggs produced on the allotments also playing an important role: 17-24 per cent for vegetables, 13-19 per cent for potatoes, 14-25 per cent for fruits, and 10-16 per cent for eggs and milk.

Small-scale production of food in urban agglomerations also has important social functions, including the following:

-Social and creative functions are related to specific forms of land ownership, modes of organization of production, and the lives of the gardeners.
-Opportunities are created for the development of multi-professional human interests.
-Individual self-realization increases in the course if direct contact with nature and food production, and at the same time provides an opportunity to enjoy a more beneficial life-style.
-Health and recreational needs are met.
-Those no longer in the workforce, particularly re tired and state-supported persons, can participate in a vocational activity.
-Free time is spent in a pleasant, productive activity.

The basic production of allotment gardens may be divided into the following groups: fruits from trees, fruits from bushes, and raspberries, strawberries (both cultivated and "wild" varieties), and other berries. From the nutritional point of view one may divide fruits and vegetables into three groups: those that contain a high amount of carotene, such as car rots, spinach, green peas, pumpkin, cherries, and apricots; those that have abundant quantities of vitamin C, such as cabbage, paprika, parsley, and berries; and the other fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables constitute an important component of the diet because of their nutritional value as well as their taste and versatility in cooking. They are a source of vitamins and minerals, the majority of which have a alkalizing effect on the human system. In addition, they contain crude fibre, a desirable component of a diet otherwise composed of highly processed and purified foods.

More than 46 per cent of the total area cultivated in urban allotment gardens in 1 984 was used for vegetables and potatoes. There are some 7.5 million fruit trees in the gardens, representing 8 per cent of all fruit trees in the country. Apple, sour cherry, plum, and pear trees constitute approximately 90 per cent of these; the proportions differ from those of trees in typical orchards principally in that there are fewer apple trees. There are about 14 million grapevines and gooseberry, red and black currant, and hazelnut bushes. These plants make up a significant proportion of the gardens: in 1984 gooseberry and currant bushes accounted for 17.5 per cent of the area; the figure was even higher for grapevines and hazelnuts. The overall cultivation of the remaining berry fruits (raspberries and strawberries) was relatively small and accounted for only 5.4 per cent of the total area planted.

FIG. 1. Utilization of the area of urban allotment gardens in Poland, 1984

FIG. 2. Management of allotment gardens "average numbers of plants per plot or areas per plot for various crops) in Poland by province, 1984

These three groups of fruits and vegetables continued to increase not only in absolute figures but in their share of the total output. An important feature of the gardens, although it is difficult to quantify, is their production of flowers as well as medicinal and seasoning herbs.

Because of the difficult economic situation in recent years, and especially the rationing of meat and meat products, the output of allotment gardens has expanded to include livestock. Since 1983 this has increased by some 40 per cent, mainly in the areas of breeding of rabbits and poultry.

In addition to food production, economic advantages, and recreational activities, alloment gardens in urban areas are important ecologically. Generally speaking, production is harmonized as much as possible with the requirements of the natural environment, or at least within the constraints of environmental pollution. The production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is one of the most energy-consuming activities related to food production. This makes it particularly important to grow wholesome food using ecologically sound practices. Of particular importance are methods of cultivation in which people follow nature, organizing production not only to benefit themselves but to be useful for nature.

The target thus will not be to maximize the yield regardless of the consequences, as is the case in conventional agriculture and horticulture, but to do so within the limits of tolerance of the ecological system. This means using procedures that are the most energy-efficient and that improve the fertility of the soil, protect the environment, limit or preclude the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and supply products of the highest nutritional value.

It is difficult to overemphasize the role of allotment gardens in urbanized areas; their impact is far greater than that of parks and green areas. One may thus distinguish the direct benefits of protecting the environment in urbanized areas in particular.

The quantity and quality of the yields depend on several factors, a major one of which is agrotechnical cultivation operations. The science of land use can examine all the possible combinations of cultivation techniques and climate to ensure that allotment gardens realize the best possible yields. For example, in contrast to commercial production, year-to-year variation in the yield is not a negative feature of allotment gardens; neither is an extended harvesting period or the production of foods that cannot be transported successfully. In addition, the gardeners may select the production methods and take advantage of the newest developments in agrotechnology that best apply to their gardens. For example, they may select bushes and plants that will give the greatest harvest based on growing conditions in a particular area. In addition, agrotechnology can offer solutions to such problems that are not very expensive.

The research conducted so far on small-scale agricultural production in urban areas in Poland leads to four conclusions: First, its output is of substantial and increasing importance in overall food production. Second, it is of importance for certain population groups, in particular households of retired persons or those supported by social security. Third, agrotechnological and ecologically oriented methods of production are available to permit intensive production that will not only protect the natural environment but reduce pollution. Fourth, foods produced on a small scale appear to be more healthy, wholesome products that those grown on a large scale.


Agriculture and file Food Economy, 1984 (in Polish), GUS Central Statistical Office series, no. 28 (Warsaw, 1985).

Balance Result of Horticultural Production, 1980-1984 (in Polish) (GUS Central Statistical Office, Warsaw. 1985).

Brzezik, R., and A. de Saint Paul, "Analysis of Costs, Rentability, and Profitability of Food Production in Peasant Farms in 1985" (in Polish), Zagadnienia Ekonomiki Rolnej, suppl. no. 5 (1986).

Corny. M. "Ecological Agriculture and Its Importance for the Protection of the Environment and for Production of Food'' (in Polish) (Lodz, 1987).

Kropisz, A. Cultivation and Fertilization of Soils (in Polish) (WSP, Warsaw, 1985).


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