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Buying up Poland at a discount

Buying up Poland at a discount

I'm standing in a field of tall lush stems, surrounded by muddy plains.

Occasional dilapidated farm buildings and rusting tractor axles punctuate the fairly dull horizon, near Kociszew in central Poland.

The soil is overworked and much of it is now infertile, but land here is 35 times cheaper than in the EU.

If Poland joins the European Union in 2004, its borders will open and vast tracts of farmland will be up for grabs.

Foreign investors are already knocking at the door, with plans for large-scale farms, holiday homes and golf courses.

Gerald Rivett and his business partner Richard Rozwadowski are both British-born businessmen.

They have taken a 10-year lease on 1,000 acres of land, convinced that farming here offers more potential than tilling the land back home.

Gerald, a pharmaceuticals consultant, looks a bit like a perma-tanned rock star - complete with an astrological pendant, blouson shirt and a heavy buckle belt slung around his hips.

'So much potential'

His business partner, Richard could not be more different with his sensible shoes and concerned expression.

The pair stomp off into a field of maize, to check the crop.

" I've had windows smashed, machinery stolen - the worst night was when they brought down the roof of the barn "

British-born investor Gerald Rivett

"This is a land of opportunity," explains Gerald.

"Poland is going to be the centre of the new Europe. There is so much potential here," he says.

Gesturing towards the fields he continues: "Without being arrogant, I know I can double the yield of this terrain."

As we speak, a tractor hums back and forth drilling more maize.

"There's no doubt," says Gerald, "if Poland joins the EU, land prices will go up, and Poles will find themselves priced out of their own market".

Gerald has big plans for the estate.

He wants to modernise the dairy and convert the crumbling limestone manor house into a luxury hotel and conference centre.

German invasion?

The grounds are being landscaped for wedding receptions.

And despite the presence of workmen, stepladders and mouthfuls of building dust, the place is already booking up.

When the lease expires, Gerald would like to buy the farm.

" If we saw massive takeovers and whole villages bought out - that would be worrying "

Polish smallholder Adolfa Ciszewski

But the Polish Government is making it difficult for foreigners to buy land here.

Smallholders are worried they will not have the capital to compete with moneyed outsiders.

And there are psychological fears too.

Poland has a long and complicated history of foreign invasion.

Many people are uncomfortable with the prospect of foreign investors, German ones in particular, snapping up land for second homes.

Some farmers are so uncomfortable with the idea, they have set up roadblocks and stormed the Ministry of Agriculture in Warsaw, smashing windows and setting off fire extinguishers inside the building.

Last week the same group, which belongs to the populist left-wing Self Defence party overturned a train carrying German wheat.

Mindless minority

The few foreigners who have settled in Poland find their neighbours are both insecure and curious.

The crops on Gerald Rivett's farm grow taller and greener.

Locals keep coming round to have a look, trying to understand how he has managed to do it.

At one point, there were so many of them, that Gerald printed a weekly agronomy sheet, with free instructions of which pesticides to use and when.

So despite their nationalist pride, Polish farmers are hungry to modernise.

That is not to say that farming here is without its challenges:

"I have an excellent relationship with local farmers," beams Gerald, rather enjoying his role of rich man and mentor.

"We share knowledge, but there is a mindless minority of drunks who spend Saturday nights vandalising my farm. I've had windows smashed, machinery stolen - the worst night was when they brought down the roof of the barn."

Dropping prices

Round the corner from Gerald's sprawling farm, Boguslaw and Adolfa Ciszewski tend their small-holding.

Boguslaw, who has put on a fresh nylon football top for our visit, surveys the apple orchards in his slippers.

" Some feel the traditional attachment to the land is a matter of the heart - more than the pocket "

He is much younger than his kindly face, sun-baked to a rich dark brown colour, would have you believe.

The couple would like to expand and modernise their business.

But the price at market no longer covers the cost of what they grow.

Like many farmers Boguslaw has taken a part-time job - he is a security guard at the local bank.

"We want to know if there's a future in farming," says Boguslaw, gently holding his wife's hand.

"Is selling land to foreigners good or bad for the Polish people?"

Adolfa interjects: "It's one thing if a single individual buys some land - that wouldn't bother me," she says.

"But if we saw massive takeovers and whole villages were bought out, that would be worrying."

Painful change

With a third of the Polish population living in the countryside, it is not surprising that selling land to foreigners is a sensitive issue.

Some feel Polish land should stay in Polish hands, and that the traditional attachment to the land is a matter of the heart, more than the pocket.

But others are anxious for Poland to move forward, lest the county miss out on exciting new opportunities.

Farmers like Gerald may not be wholly welcome, but there is a belief that outsiders could bring painful but essential change to Poland's rural economy.

From 2002