- agriculture - France
Farmers in crisis as worst drought in decades bites
The spring of 2011 has been the driest in decades and the hottest in a century, a deep concern for France’s indebted farming community. The younger generation, which has borrowed heavily to invest in properties, is most gravely affected.
The worst drought in decades threatens to cripple France’s agricultural sector, while strict water restrictions are being imposed across the country.
Hervé Brulé, a project director at the French Ministry of Ecology, told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday the water shortage was more severe than 1976, when a heat wave and 16-month dry spell parched much of northern Europe.
“This is much worse than anything on record,” he said. “Of course the weather might change as we go into the second half of the year, but so far we have had less spring rain than in 1976.”
Brulé said water restrictions were active in 58 of France’s 96 mainland departments, meaning households were forbidden by law from watering their gardens or filling up their swimming pools on certain days and during daylight hours (see graphic below).
France is the EU's biggest producer of wheat, and a bad harvest could have significant implications for the price of bread far beyond its borders.
And in France itself, a prolonged drought could have severe implications in a sector that is already on the brink.
Farmers in debt
Among the worst affected is the younger generation, which has borrowed heavily to invest in properties that have been ravaged by the dry weather.
Daniel Prieu, a livestock farmer from the Franche-Comté region on the Swiss border, explained that the year’s first crop of the cereals, which is mostly used for animal feed, was 60% short.
“One livestock farmer in two is going to find it impossible to balance the cost of buying in feed with the cost of paying off debts they have accrued for essential investment on their farms,” he said.
“Back in 1976, there wasn’t the same level of indebtedness. We just tightened our belts and got through it. There are fewer options now.”
Mr Prieu, who is head of his departmental chamber of agriculture and deputy Secretary General of the FNSEA farmers union, insists that he is optimistic for the future, and that rain will fall this summer.
“But 2003 was an exceptionally dry year,” he said. “So was 2010, and now we have this unprecedented drought. Unlike some, I take climate change very seriously.”
Meanwhile, the government said on Tuesday that French Bank Credit Agricole was preparing an emergency fund of 700 billion euros in cheap loans to pump liquidity into the farming sector.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said Credit Agricole had agreed to grant preferential loans at 2% with 1.5% for young farmers, although this measure only applies to livestock breeders who pay regularly into the national agricultural disaster fund.
“This release of 700 million euros in loans is immediate, automatic and without conditions for all French breeders," Le Maire told a news conference. “To think we could get through this with 80 or 100 million euros would be naive.”
Le Maire added that the desperation within the farming community was so acute the government was seeking help from specialist organisations to prevent suicides among farmers.