By Philip Clarke

CLAIMS that the French wheat crop is much better than expected and will easily meet buyers needs have been dismissed by UK traders as “unrealistic”.

According to French grain body ITCF, the 2000 harvest was highly satisfactory.

Average moisture came to 13.9%, about 60% of the crop was over 74.5kg/hl specific weight and protein was up by 0.3% to 11.4%.

This reflects French growers preference for bread-making wheat, which now accounts for 78% of the sown area, said head of quality Guy Martin at a presentation to millers in London last week.

Initial harvest results had suggested a problem with Hagbergs, he admitted.

But further research had shown values to be better than originally feared.

Despite copious rain, almost 30% of the crop had a falling number higher than 220, with a further 18% between 180 and 220.

This means that about one-third of the crop – 11m tonnes – will qualify for intervention, says the director of intervention agency ONIC, Pierre Olivier Drege.

More importantly, research has shown that lower Hagbergs were compensated for by higher proteins when it comes to bread-making quality, says Mr Drege.

“Our millers are telling us that 220 Hagberg is purely an administrative number.

“It has little relevance to milling, and they are currently using 180s, 160s and even 150s.”

As such, he thinks all French wheat will find a home, even if it is to intervention.

But UK traders remain sceptical.

“I think they are making the story better than the reality,” says Richard Whitlock of Banks Agriculture.

“They are in maximum selling mode because, for the first time, the French are having to do more than wait for the market to come to them.”

He suggests the UK has already penetrated some of the southern European markets traditionally supplied by France.

And a British Cereal Exports mission to Morocco and Tunisia next month could deliver sales if it can overcome the problem of export credits which the French government gives north African buyers.

Even though 11m tonnes of French wheat might qualify for intervention, nothing like that amount could go into store if France is to meet its internal and third country milling demands, says Mr Whitlock.

And Trevor Harriman of Dalgety accepts that Continental millers could manage with lower Hagbergs by blending, but he notes the French also have a larger amount of feed wheat to shift and so far have had little help from Brussels, which still refuses to issue any export subsidies.

“But the longer they can dissuade their buyers from turning to other suppliers, the better chance they have of clearing it.”