KETZIN, EAST GERMANY -- "An egg," said East German shopper Marga Kuehne, "is an egg."
Yes, said shop clerk Christina Grimm, "but a West German egg is something different, and people want to try something different."
So many East Germans are choosing West German eggs -- as well as milk, meat, fruits and vegetables -- that East Germany's 800,000 farmers are plowing under hundreds of acres of fresh produce, firing thousands of workers and slashing production by half or more.
In the eight weeks since the two Germanys merged their economies, East German farmers have cried out for attention by dumping tons of milk onto downtown East Berlin streets, slaughtering unsold pigs in public squares, delivering cow dung to the front door of parliament and pelting the country's agriculture minister with fresh tomatoes and other vegetables.
The minister was fired, but the situation on the farms shows no sign of improving any time soon, despite more than $1 billion in new government subsidies.
In a country where unemployment was unknown eight months ago, economists predict that more than 20 percent of the work force will be without jobs by the end of November.
Since East Germany lifted its 40-year policy of price controls July 1, prices for many West German items, including meat and vegetables, have become lower than East German prices. In places like Ketzin, less than an hour's drive west of Berlin, thrifty East German shoppers simply do their shopping in West Berlin.
But even when East German prices are competitive, it doesn't seem to matter. "I'll tell you exactly why," said Rosamarie Gehse, manager of a state-owned poultry farm and retail outlet in Ketzin. "We have only a couple of shops in a little town like this. There was never any need for more shops with the old system. Now people want a big choice, and there's no supply here. So they go to West Berlin."
There are other reasons for the farmers' plight, of course. Until July, Gehse's operation had 80 retail customers who bought 10 tons of chicken and poultry-based sausages each week. Since July 1, when the old communist system expired overnight, 60 of the 80 customers have canceled their orders, and the Ketzin plant now sells only two tons a week.
"The shops tell us they'd like to keep buying our goods but the Western chains don't allow it," Gehse said. Many West German wholesalers agree to supply shops with food products only if East German shopkeepers sign exclusive contracts, boxing out East German suppliers.
Even farmers who do not face such obstacles are suffering dramatic losses, in large measure because "they expect the government to say what is to happen," said West German Agriculture Minister Ignaz Kiechle. The East German system has "no path from producer to consumer. What's missing above all in East German agriculture is knowledge of how a market economy works."
Kiechle predicts that 400,000 of the country's 800,000 farmers will lose their jobs. East German managers agree.
"Maybe 50 percent of our people will be left after we've adjusted to Western standards of productivity," said Willi Mueller, production director of the massive Otto Grotewohl Ketzin cooperative farm that supplied 10 percent of East Germany's broiler chicks until July.
"We always had fixed incomes here. You got your salary regardless of whether the firm was half-bankrupt or not. Now we have freedom; we can travel anywhere. But our people didn't realize what Westerners meant when they said prices could vary. We didn't realize that our income could go down."
Across the Havelland, the lake-filled region where Germans have grown food for centuries, farmers are being told that all the rules have changed.
"In earlier years, the yield was the only thing that counted on our farms," said Axel Senst, an agronomist from East Berlin's Humboldt University who is advising fruit farmers in Ketzin. "Now it's the quality that counts. It will take at least five years, maybe a generation, to change how people think and behave."
Local farmers were forced to change their methods in the early 1970s, when Soviet agriculture experts came to the Havelland and imposed the Moldavian system of devoting gigantic tracts to single crops, a way of increasing yield at the expense of other values.
"The old fruit farmers became very distrustful," Senst said. "Even professors were forced to provide a justification for the Soviet methods."
At the Ketzin chicken farm, workers say only German unification -- now scheduled for Oct. 3 -- will begin the rebuilding of their livelihoods. It will be a long way back.
The farm produced 9.4 million chicks in 1989. This year's goal was 10 million. Now the farm will be lucky to find customers for 3 million chicks.
As incubators and hatching machines stand idle, many of the chicken farm's workers are on half-time arrangements, a holding action ahead of massive layoffs expected in the next few weeks. Forty years of total job security are over.
"The mentality of the people has been transformed," Mueller said. "Now they buy Western chicken, either because it's in a nice package or because it's three thighs or a breast rather than the whole bird. We can't do that. We never had the machines to sell anything but the entire bird."
The situation is so desperate that the farm is selling some of its 1-day-old, vitamin-injected breeder chicks as regular eating eggs. The eating eggs bring only a few pennies each, a far cry from the $1.10 that the breeder chicks once brought, "but at least we get rid of some of them this way," Mueller said.
The farmers, enraged and confused by the loss of business, recently voted out their longtime chairman, but his replacement frankly admits that he is unlikely to improve the farmers' prospects.
At the end of the year, the state-owned farm is to be split up. Some collective farms have reported that fewer than 10 percent of their farmers want to become independent. And at the Ketzin chicken farm, many of the workers are already planning to share tools and tasks after the breakup. But before new structures can emerge, individual farmers will have to put up about $6,000 to buy a piece of the cooperative farm.
"I can do it because I'm 62 and I have money saved," said a farmer who declined to be named. "But the younger ones don't have a chance of buying in."
This farmer's pay has dropped from 1,200 marks a month (about $800) to 700 marks (about $465) since July, and although he has bought a new Audi with his savings, he sees little but struggle ahead.
"We're starting from nothing," he said. "OK, now we're finally getting rid of the Communists, but life for the little people won't get any better until we get rid of this country, because those old crooks are still getting fat off the rest of us. They've got to unite with the West -- the faster, the better."
Unification may help prompt Western companies to invest in East Germany, by building plants, taking over farms and sharing know-how. But it will be an enormous and slow task, West German economists warn.
And some East Germans are skeptical that help will arrive quickly. "I have the impression that the Western companies are all waiting for us to go bankrupt so they can get in here cheaply," Mueller said. "We need them now. We need their knowledge of marketing. We don't have a clue how it works."