22 December 2000

Contrasting fortunes for Continental neighbours

By Andrew Blake

ARABLE farmers in the UK are not alone in suffering the worst autumn in living memory, says a Nuffield Scholar following a tour of France and Germany.

"France, if possible, seemed wetter than the midlands I had just left," says Richard Burt, farmers weeklys western barometer farmer. But Germany appeared relatively unscathed.

"Autumn cereal drilling was completely bogged down in France and fields drilled in the past few weeks were just huge sheets of glistening water. In most regions 40% of autumn cereals remained undrilled."

From Paris to Orleans, farmers were still trying to harvest soggy maize. Few have drying facilities and face big bills from local co-ops.

"One bizarre difference to this country is that French seed suppliers seem willing to take back unused autumn cereal seed and exchange it for spring varieties – something that would no doubt interest a lot of UK farmers."

Sugar beet harvest remains a struggle in atrocious conditions. "Huge tri-axle trailers carrying up to 25t of beet were making many areas look like the battlefields they were 85 years ago. But growers are forced to press on because all French factories lose before Christmas."

By contrast, Germany has fared well. "Most regions are drilled up and machines clean and in the shed. Farmers are not so glum. Yield, quality and harvest conditions have been OK; and due to currency differences, prices and IACS values are larger than the UK."

But fuel, Agenda 2000 and fertiliser together create an £85/ha (£34/acre) bill many smaller farmers feel they cannot afford, he says. Many are co-operating with neighbours to offset high land prices in the west and rising rents in the east.

"I saw some amazing cost-saving exercises using simple cultivations and labour cut to brave new levels. One farm had established 2000ha of winter wheat with one tractor, one cultivator, one drill, and two men working round the clock.

"But I was pleased to learn they have some pests my farm does not. One farm co-operative near Erfut was spreading pellets, not for slugs, but for grazing mice! But despite the nibbling crops looked well." &#42

Blue skies have been as rare in France as in the UK this autumn, but German growers are well drilled up, reports Richard Burt.

CONTINENTALAUTUMN

&#8226 France suffering in wet.

&#8226 40% of cereals undrilled.

&#8226 Battling with sugar beet.

&#8226 Germany mostly sown up.