Seeds of Private Enterprise


Faced with the daunting task of transforming their country's state-managed economy into a market system, Poles might well wonder where to start. The most promising place seems to be the agricultural sector: Some 80 percent of Poland's farmland is privately owned, and until 1985 the nation was a net food exporter.

But private farming in Poland has been hobbled by its dependence on the government, which has reserved most agricultural supplies for state farms. Soon Polish farmers may have an alternative source of materials and equipment. The Boston-based Sabre Foundation, through its Scientific Assistance Project, is arranging donations of farm supplies by agribusiness firms. Donors are entitled to special tax deductions.

The American-funded, Warsaw-based Foundation for the Development of Polish Agriculture, which will help distribute the supplies, has drawn up a list of needed items. It includes 20,000 maize pickers, 50,000 rotary hay mowers, 10,000 milk-cooling tanks, 10,000 manure spreaders, and thousands of tons of agricultural chemicals. The first donor, pharmaceutical maker Pfizer, will contribute $100,000 in veterinary antibiotics and cover the cost of transporting and distributing them. The foundation hopes to find additional donors in time for the spring planting. It has asked both the Polish government and the U.S. Agency for International Development to help pay for shipping the supplies.

The Sabre Foundation has successfully used a similar strategy to promote donations of books by American publishers. Since its establishment in 1986, the Scientific Assistance Project has become the largest donor of educational materials in Eastern Europe. From May 1986 through December 1988, the project arranged donations of textbooks valued at $7.2 million. In 1989 the program expanded dramatically, handling more than $7 million in donations during the first nine months. In view of accelerating political reform, the foundation has set a target of $20 million to $30 million for this year.

From food for thought, Sabre has now turned to the more concrete kind. David Hendler, program officer for Sabre's Scientific Assistance Project, notes that Poland's new, noncommunist government is likely to be judged by this year's agricultural performance. He is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for private agriculture, noting that much farmland lies fallow for want of seed, fertilizer, and other materials.

To mimic a market system, Sabre's agricultural program will charge farmers for administrative and transportation costs, encouraging the establishment of credit systems and a full-fledged private distribution network. Ultimately, an unfettered Polish economy will also provide farmers with adequate supplies. When that happens, Hendler says, Sabre's program can drop out of the picture. "Its long-term goal is to put itself out of business."