Issue #28, 2008

Machines (Fragment From A Set Of 112 Photos)
Łukasz Skąpski

In 1982, in the village of Zasan by Myslenice, I witnessed an attempt to start a ploughing machine for potatoes. It was hand-made by a farmer, who used the parts of a SHL motorbike. It had an absurd look: the handgrip was at the back of the motorbike, the rear wheel was missing, instead there was a ploughshare; propulsion was moved to the front on the metal stern wheel, obviously taken from an agricultural machine. I watched the farmer’s struggle with disbelief. I didn’t think it could work. I had seen hand-made engines in villages before, and I thought that they would be worth recording.

It was only in the summer of 2005 that my idea was implemented. I opened up a record of photographs and videos of about 150 tractors and a number of other agri­cultural machines hand produced by farmers in the Podhale region. Before I set to work, I had visited once again the farmer in Zasan. I was told that his machine “didn’t perform well”.

My interest in the individual production of Polish farmers, however, was stimulated by its, as I believe, anti-corporate character. Here I must explain why I use the term “anti-corporate” for actions resulting from resourcefulness and lack of opportunity to purchase small agricultural machines. Specific social, political and economic condi­tions prevailing in the communist period in the entire Eastern bloc, including the People’s Republic of Poland must be taken into consideration.

Bearing in mind that almost all means of production were state-owned and that capital was controlled by the state alone, I assume that real socialism can be treated as state capitalism. State capitalism – in other words, a monopolistic mega-corporation controlling all aspects of social and economic life, and regarding private owner­ship of land as well as small farmers as competition and political threat. Not without a reason, as newest history has demonstrated. Private ownership of land helped Polish farmers gain independence of the state and was an indirect reason for the collapse of the communist system.

Farm production of agricultural machines was an aspect of that independence, their subject identity and resourcefulness. It was tangible evidence of a gap in the system and the way it could be used. And, considering the conditions of that time, anti-corporate activity. My intention was to present the unparalleled amounts of energy that people can gather in unfavourable circumstances.

In the 1960s horse-drawn carts were the most common means of transport in piedmont areas. However, the efficiency of working with a horse-drawn cart is far lower and the inconveniency greater than that of working with a tractor. One of the reasons for the domestic production of tractors (rather than purchase) in the Podhale was the narrow track width (110 cm) of the horse-drawn cart. Dirt roads cutting through fields or forests, rutted by carts, got eroded in time into deep and narrow ditches in steep areas. No vehicle, apart from a cart, could drive in such ditches, being too wide. Unless it was a small tractor whose axles had been shortened. That was the reason why ingenious highlanders began to produce their own tractors in the early 1960s. These were usually small tractors constructed of parts of lorries or off-road vehicles. It was popular to buy an old dodge from a fire station (these big off-road army surplus vehicles were part of the equipment of fire brigades in the mountains), shorten its axles and install a slow-turning diesel engine produced in Andrychow onto a hand-made frame.

State production of agrarian machines in Poland was aimed at providing them for large state enterprises that dominated the plains of central Poland. Soil in the piedmont and mountain areas is poor, and the region is and has always been covered with small, fragmented farms. Tractors produced by Ursus were too big and too expensive for those farms. As I was told by one of the owners of a home-made tractor, an allotted Ursus tractor cost 40,000 zlotys of the time and to bribe a clerk to allot one cost 60,000 zlotys. It was possible to be allotted a tractor without having to bribe anyone only if the farm delivered a minimum of agrarian products by official purchase prices. Small farms could not do that.

A tractor made of scrap was cheap, and so was labour in Poland. Far cheaper than a factory produced tractor. It was also better and safer: depending on whether its owner’s fields were steep or not, it could have one-axle (2  4), two-axle (4  4) or three-axle drive (AWD). The third axle was the axle of a two-wheel semi-trailer, called kara by highlanders. It was indeed an ingenious invention considering that roads were narrow: it was much easier to maneuver. Kara drive was a necessity in the mountains: while driving uphill, a tractor was not immobilized by a loaded trailer pulling it back and did not “rear up”, when going downhill it was not pushed by the trailer as it could brake with gears. Being pushed so can cause a tractor to turn over, which often happens with the Ursus tractors which have one-axle drive.

As far as I was able to find out, the first tractor was constructed by Andrzej “Hucbala” Pabin from Witow. Kara was constructed by Hucbala and Andrzej Masny “Balas” from Chocholow. They consulted their constructions with one another. Hucbala claims that he has constructed “about a hundred” tractors, but “a hundred” sounded like “a lot”. It could as well have been many more. Both constructors have primary education. Their ideas were instantly observed and implemented in other domestic con­struc­tions. In this way, karas or side comb mowers became a standard tractor equipment in the Podhale.

In the 1980s almost every farm in the Podhale had a hand-made tractor. When the great state-owned farms PGRs were dissolved in Poland in the early 1990s and their possessions were on sale, highlanders bought tractors from them. Simultaneously, labour cost got higher in Poland, and, consequently, the number of hand-made tractors suddenly decreased.

Łukasz Skąpski, 2006

Translated by Monika Ujma