About 2 million family farms, employing approximately 27.5 percent of the labor force, supply Poland's agricultural output. As a result of land reforms in the 1940s, when the country's large estates were divided up under communist rule, Polish farms are generally small, averaging about 15 acres. This is changing as much bigger farms are being developed, but the majority of farmers are unable to earn sufficient income through agriculture and must take outside jobs in order to support their families. Agriculture contributed only 3.8 percent of GDP in 1999, a major change in a country that, before World War II, was primarily an agricultural economy.
Poland is among the world's leading producers of rye, potatoes, and apples, as well as pork and milk. The length of the growing season varies regionally according to climate, being much shorter in the northeast where a harsh continental climate prevails. Although the exports of certain produce (potatoes, apples and other fruits, frozen ducks and geese, and sugar) has declined over the years, Poland exports grains, sugar, pork, processed meats, and dairy products. The upwards of 150-year-old sugar industry faces stiff price competition from overseas producers and is under pressure to restructure itself as the quantities of unsold sugar mount. Similarly, the once enormous potato production has been substantially reduced by changes and improvements to the feeding of livestock. Farmers face tough competition from imported commodities and food products, and are dissatisfied by the lack of sufficient export markets. It is expected that, within a decade, there will be no more than 700,000 farms in Poland. They will be large, specialized, and commercially geared, replacing the small, diversified, but often inefficient agricultural producers. Restructuring of the farming sector is a major issue in negotiating Poland's access to the EU.
Pork and dairy farmers remain competitive. Milk and pork production have recovered from the transition from the centrally planned system of fixed prices to the market economy. Dairy plants that had been organized as cooperatives have successfully adopted modern processing and packing technologies, and planned development of dairy products has helped maintain market demand.
Even before the 20th century, deforestation occurred as a result of clearing trees in order to expand the land available for farming. This has led to problems of soil erosion caused by winds blowing across the treeless land. In recent years, the government has offered reforestation incentives to farmers, granting them exemption from land tax if they plant trees on their least productive land. Polish farmers only use pesticides in conditions of extreme necessity and the use of chemical fertilizer is also comparatively low, but there is always the threat of water pollution, mainly caused by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff in livestock production. Farmers are being educated to the dangers, and practices are changing. Local governments, too, have been using central government grants to plant trees along streams and creeks to establish a biological barrier between fields and surface water. Further progress in farming techniques will require additional investment in manure storage facilities, and the government will continue to support environmental programs relating to agriculture in order to meet EU standards.