Germany experienced the driest and warmest April in more than 200 years -- good news for a frequently sun-starved population, but bad news for farmers, who may face devastating crop losses.
Some crops are hardy -- but they can only take so much
This spring in Germany has been an exceptionally good time for sitting outside in cafes, strolling through parks and getting some wear out of those warm weather clothes. The bright skies have put many Germans in an equally bright mood.
But the trifecta of record weather conditions in April -- it was the sunniest, hottest and driest in recent memory -- is putting very sour faces on the nation's farmers, since it means their livelihoods could well be in danger.
Rainfall was 95 percent below the monthly average; in some areas of the country, not a single drop of rain fell the entire month. The average median temperature was nearly 11.7 degrees Celsius (53 degrees Fahrenheit) -- 4.4 degrees C higher than normal. And the number of hours of sunshine in the month – 350 – was double the norm.
If the extreme weather continues, it looks like the drought will cost farmers a bundle, including possible crop failure and additional burdens, like increased irrigation costs. And consumers may have to pony up as well, some observers say.
"We desperately need rain, especially the sugar beet and grain crops," said Andrea Adams, spokeswoman for the Farmers' Association of the southwestern German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. "If it doesn't come in the next few days, we can count on being hit with serious financial losses."
'Speculating' on costs
Serious costs have already been incurred, she noted, but at this point, "it's a question of how much. If it rains soon, then maybe we can keep it within limits," she said.
Irrigation can help -- but it's costly
Currently, losses of around 30 percent would be possible, Adams said. But she added that discussing figures at this early date is "pure speculation."
Rhineland-Palatinate is best known for its vineyards, which produce Germany's famous Rieslings, Gewürztraminers and sparkling whites. Fortunately, the established vines are unlikely to be affected -- they withstand dry periods well, Adams said.
But like much of Germany, the region has a diverse agricultural base; grains, sugar beets, vegetables and fruits and grown.
High costs of irrigation
Wheat is already yellowing in the fields, Adams said, but the most worrisome crop is the sugar beet. Because the winter was so mild, the beets were sowed early, at the end of March. Since then, they have barely grown.
"They look exactly like when they were planted," Adams said.
The fruit harvest is expected to be very small because the trees – which already had an extremely short pollination period due to a mild winter and the sudden onset of summer-like temperatures --were hit with a double-whammy of heat and drought.
A short, early bloom can translate into less fruit
There will be no shortage of vegetables, she added, because vegetable fields are typically irrigated. But the farmers are burdened with extremely high water bills.
Adams said it is unlikely those costs will be passed on to consumers, however.
"The farmers need to stand up to international competition," she said. "They'll have to absorb the costs themselves."
All eyes on the weather report
But other sources show prices have already been affected. In the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, consumers paid over 26 percent more for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers than a year ago, according to Germany's Bureau of Statistics. In Saxony, vegetable prices were up 15.5 percent.
Although aided by modern technology, farmers today are sometimes forced to do exactly as their predecessors have done over the centuries -- fervently hope for rain clouds on the horizon.
"They just watch the weather reports every night and are really nervous," Adams said.
Brandenburg hardest hit
The hardest hit area, with the greatest danger of widespread crop loss, is Brandenburg, said Michael Lohse, spokesman for the German Farmers' Association. The heavily agricultural area surrounding Berlin is known for its sandy soil, which doesn't retain water well.
Other areas that could suffer large crop losses are parts of Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bavaria. Harvests could be cut in half, according to Lohse.
People can cool off and enjoy the sunny weather, but plants can't
The Brandenburg state farmers' association said three-quarters of the fields are unuseable.
Too dry, too early
"It is tragic," association spokesman Holger Brantsch told Tagesspiegel. "The rye is already curling up and dying. If it doesn't rain by this weekend, the crop will wither. It's getting more dramatic by the hour."
Yet meteorologists have yet to predict precipitation any time soon; the forecast calls for sunny skies for the immediate future.
German farmers have been hit by drought before, but never so early in the crop cycle. Later droughts usually mean at least some of the crop can be saved, experts say.
In terms of consumer prices, however, everything will be determined in the next few days, said Johannes Funke, spokesman for ZMP, a company that prices German farm commodities.
"In the next few days, it will become clear how much of an impact this will have," he said. "But one thing we can definitely say is, we desperately need some rain."
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