Northern Europe's farmers fear drought as bad as 1976
French wheatfields, like this one near Lyon, are
Farmers in northern Europe are finding themselves caught
between a hard place and a rock-hard place as an unusually dry spring turns to summer.
France, the EU's top wheat producer, has formed a national "drought committee",
limiting water consumption in many regions and lifting curbs on the use of fallow land for grazing.
The European Commission has just approved in principle France's request for an
advance on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments its farmers are due to receive in December, bringing them
forward to 16 October.
With parts of Europe seeing less than 40% of their long-term average rainfall between
February and April, fellow EU states may follow suit.
A bad year for wheat - second only to wine as the EU's largest agricultural product -
would hurt not only the farmer, but could well hit the consumer, driving up the cost of Europeans' pasta and
"You see the root, how it's dry, how short it is?" asked rapeseed grower Pascal
Seingier this week, speaking to a Reuters TV crew that came to see him on his farm near Lumigny in northern
"There is nothing. And the whole top of the field is like that. Fortunately that's
not the case lower down. But where the earth is very shallow, where there are no water reserves, well - there you
'We've stopped believing'
Cracked earth and browned leaves are visible across the Ile-de-France
region, according to Reuters.
On a family farm in another part of the region, l'Essonne, Nicolas Dufour and his
father Jean-Marc have also been struggling to grow rapeseed as well as wheat and barley.
"We began to get concerned at the beginning of April after seeing March go by without
any real rain," the son told France's Le Monde newspaper this month.
"There were some storms actually but the ground was too dry to benefit from
On the farm, they have stopped believing in rain, Nicolas said. "Each time a shower
looks like coming on, the weather turns and there isn't a drop."
Ironically, Jean-Marc acquired the farm in 1976, the year of northern Europe's great
heatwave and drought, which he managed to survive with the aid of a loan and "a lot of elbow grease".
"When you're young and full of ambition, you tighten your belt and hang on in there,"
According to French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, the dry spell may hurt
livestock farmers just as hard, as they face both a shortage of feed and rising feed prices.
And France's neighbours are having their own share of the pain:
Farmers in the south-west German region of Rhineland-Palatinate were fearing "serious
financial losses" from crop failure and mounting irrigation costs, the country's Deutsche Welle
websitewrote earlier this
In the English county of Hertfordshire, cereals sown this
spring have been practically wiped out, according to a Daily
Telegraph report this
France's agriculture minister declared a "significant victory"
in his request for early CAP payments, while admitting he might have to ask Brussels for more emergency aid
But one official close to the European Commission was "very surprised" to hear the
minister talking of a victory so long before the advance payments could be made.
Grain of comfort
Asked by BBC News Online whether the EU was facing one of its worst drought crises,
the official replied it was "far too early to say".
Grain farmers can take some comfort in better prices for their produce due to high
demand for EU produce after last year's crop failures in Russia and the flooding in Australia.
A warm spring has also been a boon to some fruit farmers, such as strawberry growers
in the English county of Nottinghamshire, who saw their earliest crop in living
But for others, the worrying thing is that this year's dry
spell started early, as it did in 1976 for Jean-Marc Dufour and his generation.
The Taf Fechan reservoir in Wales was almost dry during the
The disastrous drought that year culminated in a heatwave
during which England, for example, saw a sustained period of temperatures above 30C. Could this happen again in
The UK's Met Office avoid issuing long-term predictions, saying the public do not
find them useful.
However, Meteo France is predicting above-average temperatures for that country from
May to July, a pattern predicted by others across northern Europe.
"There is a good chance of temperatures significantly above normal this summer in
Europe," one UK-based weather forecaster told BBC News Online.
"But 1976 was so exceptional, I wouldn't be making any parallels at the
Even if the spectre of '76 recedes, much damage has already been done.
France's soft wheat output is forecast to fall by 11.5% this year compared with last,
as a direct consequence of the lack of rain over the past three months, while in Germany the wheat harvest is now
expected to be down 7.2% on last year.
"As time goes by the impact on crops grows stronger," a European grain trader told
Reuters. "We need water, period."
A report on the dry spell faced by Northern European Farmers and the potential
19 May 2011
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