The tiny village of Zbrosza Duza has a good claim to being considered the Gdansk of Polish agriculture. Over the last month, it has become the focal point of attempts by Poland's 3 million peasants to follow the example set by striking workers and organize themselves into independent trade unions.

Unmarked on road maps, outwardly Zbrosza resembles thousands of other Polish villages. Some 30 miles south of Warsaw, it lies on Poland's sandy central plain. Dominating the flat landscape is a large, rather ugly, brick church which the villagers built themseleves seven years ago after an immense struggle with the Communist authorities. It was here that a meeting was held last Sunday to launch a new farmers' union in the Warsaw region.

The meeting took place after morning mass. Dressed in their best suits, delegates from miles around crammed into the crypt beneath the church to give vent to their grievances and sign up as founding members of the independent union. The occasion provided fascinating glimpses not only into the problems of Polish agriculture, but also the crucial role played in the church in first encouraging and then channeling social protest.

The Zbrosza farmers are now leading the new union, but it was a young peasant from Poznan in western Poland who really set the meeting alive. He drew huge applause when he remarked: "We are people, not cattle. We are the foundation of Poland -- and without us the country would starve."

The thrust of his complaint was that neglect of agriculture lies at the heart of Poland's present crisis. The individual peasant farmer, on whom the system depends, is looked down upon by the authorities.

An indignant colleague burst in: "When we tried to talk about our union with local officials, they kept us standing for 1 1/2 hours. Finally they suggested we sit down -- but then we refused so that we could gaze down at them from above." This display of stubborness drew loud guffaws from the ruddy faces around the room.

The farmer from Poznan was correct. For the last 35 years, since the Communists came to power, argiculture has been the archilles' heel of the Polish economy. With its fertile farmlands, Poland should be a rich agricultural country and a net exporter of food to the rest of Europe.

Instead it imports grain, and even meat on a massive scale. Attempts in the early postwar years to collectivize land were resisted -- and the policy was reversed in 1956 by the then Polish leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Today private farms accounts for 80 percent of Poland's agricultural production. But, largely for ideological reasons, individual holdings have been kept strictly limited in size and are farmed by archaic methods. The inefficient system has been bolstered by huge state subsidies to consumers (amounting to 18 percent of the total budget.)

Low yields have been exacerbated by a series of floods. As a result Poland has had to borrow even more from the West for the import of food and fodder. But this has been insufficient to satisfy consumer demand. Shortages of basic foodstuffs have caused mounting frustration, finally culminating in this summer's outburst of labor unrest.

Jerry Gorski is one of Zbrosza's leading private farmers. He has also been involved in peasants' defense committee -- an activity that has resulted in frequent calls to the local police station. A powerfully built man, he is unusual in that he does not mind being quoted by name. But his complaints reflected the concerns of the vast majority of Polish peasants.

His farm of 37 acres is large by Polish standards. His income is $6,500 a year -- and he says that, while he could easily produce more, it is simply uneconomic for him to do so under present pricing system.

Sold on the black market, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of meat fetches about $6.60. But must farmers feel obliged to sell most of their meat through the state cooperative where the price is only about $1.53. They do so partly out of fear, partly because for every pig they sell to the state, they are allowed to buy 300 kilos of otherwise unavailable coal.

Gorski estimates that it would only be worth his while producing more meat for a price of between $2.60 and $3 a kilo. But that would mean either high prices for the Polish consumer or even larger subsidies. Both these options seem politically unacceptable.

But Gorski's major grievance is the difficulty of buying new machinery or essential supplies. He would like to buy sunlamps for raising small pigs, but they are impossible to find. Without influential connections. Polish tractors can be bought only for dollars -- on the black market.

It was the fight to build the church that taught the peasants of Zbrosza Duza how to organize themselves against authority. Villagers recall how, in the early 1970s, they converted a barn into an illegal makeshift chapel. After three months, the chapel was seized and destroyed by hundreds of police who sealed off the village and prevented the peasants from erecting another shrine in its place.

This action provoked a protest from the primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who described it as "an unprecedented sacrilege." But it also left the people more politically aware and determined. One villager says he went to Warsaw 52 times to ask permission to construct a proper church.

The church was eventually built and Zbrosza Duza became a center of the dissident peasant movement. There were constant conflicts with the local police. One old farmer with a gleam in his eye remarked mischievously: "We used to dump political leaflets in ditches just to give the police something to think about. We did not see why they should sit at the police station doing nothing all day."

The fight over the church also soured relations within the community. The peasants objected to privileges granted to what they call "The red bourgeoisie." One farmer described an incident last winter when party activists were allowed to jump the queue for buying coal. Other peasants were so enraged that they kicked the door of the coal store down and telephoned the party secretary to tell him to come and put it back on again. Perhaps wisely, he kept away.

Zbrosza's priest, the Rev. Czeslaw Sadkowski, is deeply involved in the protest movement. He also has a fine sense of tactics. He asked journalists attending last Sunday's meeting to accompany him on a visit to the Klapot family who live in a squalid one-room shack on public land.

The priest explained: "I am trying to bring this family's plight to the attention of the authorities. In the past, I've found it makes a lot of difference if you take a journalist with you. If it's a foreign journalist, it's even better."

After meeting the Klapots (husband, wife, and five children), we were taken to see the spacious villa of the local party secretary. Father Sadkowski, meanwhile, gave a ride to some local youths so word would spread round the village.

Poland's farming population is getting steadily older. The farmer's life holds little attraction for young people who have streamed into the towns in search of jobs in factories. Of 3 million private farms, about a third are run by peasants over the age of 60.

One 74-year-old peasant from a village near Zbrosza explained he was unable to retire because, if he did so, his farm would revert to the state.He wanted to transfer it to his daughter and son-in-law, but they could not afford the large inheritance fee payable in advance. He had to keep on working until they found the money.

Cases like this have made nonsense of a new old age pension scheme ostensibly designed to help private farmers.In a kind of Catch-22 situtation, peasants are unable to benefit from the scheme until they have given their land. But most are reluctant to give up their land for fear that it will be taken over by the state.

The peasant, who did not want to be named, said that 50 years ago most of the land around Zbrosza had been owned by a single lord. Before the war, he started selling off chunks of land to rich peasants.

The peasant recalled: "After the war, I was ostracized because I was considered a kulak. We weren't allowed to buy artificial fertilizers, so we had to give bribes in order to get hold of it. When Gomulka came to power, he accepted kufaks. But by that time, officials had spotted a good source of income and were unwilling to give it up.

"This is how corruption started -- and how it's gone on to this very day.If you want anything in short supply, you must give them a bribe. Otherwise they'll tell you to come back tomorrow."

Meanwhile landholdings have been subdivided into ever smaller strips. And that is the irony of Polish agriculture. Thanks to communism, a medieval landscape has been preserved in the heart of 20th century Europe.