Sun-dried French fields cloud farmers' mood

LUMIGNY, France Fri May 20, 2011 4:40am EDT

A French farmer holds dry earth in his hand as a tractor works in a field in Blecourt, northern France, May 12, 2011. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

A French farmer holds dry earth in his hand as a tractor works in a field in Blecourt, northern France, May 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

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LUMIGNY, France (Reuters) - When French grain farmer Pascal Seingier pulls a wheat stalk from the cracked soil in his field and points to the browned stem and dried-out roots, his face clouds over.

"It's all dry. We have had almost no rain in weeks and it's now clear I will not have the same harvest as usual," he says. "Usually Mother Nature repairs what it has broken but it won't happen this year."

From the road, fields in the grain belt around Paris look green and healthy, but a closer look leaves no doubt.

Drought is biting crops in France, the European Union's top grain grower, a worry which helped fuel a rally in global wheat prices despite a commodity sell-off sparked by economic doubts.

Seingier, 54, who owns 125 hectares some 55 kilometers east of Paris, checks his rain gauge every morning at 8 o'clock and writes the daily rainfall on a piece of paper.

The instrument barely got wet this year, he shows -- only 25 days out of 140, with just 10 millimeters (ml) in April and May.

"Since mid-January the rainfall has been below normal. April was one of the hottest and driest on record and so far in May I have registered only 3 ml of rain," Seingier said at his farm which dates from 1860. "Usually it's 50-60 (ml) a month."

France is by far the EU's largest wheat grower and exporter, and the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris, where Seingier lives, is among the country's top 10 wheat providers.

MIRACLE

The French environment minister said on Monday France was in "a situation of crisis" and on Wednesday imposed curbs on water consumption in a third of France's administrative departments.

Over 85 percent of the wheat crop has already suffered from a lack of water, including northern France's grain belt, according to grains technical institute Arvalis.

The hot and dry weather has advanced plant development to levels normally expected in summer, and with more sun and heat to come, farmers can only wait and see the extent of the damage.

"What we need is cloudy, wet weather until harvest -- and it does not look like this will happen," Seingier said.

Meteo France forecaster Michel Daloz was not optimistic for crops, saying she expected temperatures to rise sharply over the weekend, accelerating groundwater evaporation. "We would really need a miracle to hope to make up for some of the deficit."

The drought is becoming a huge concern in France even as the country's media are dominated by the attempted rape charges against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had been seen as a possible frontrunner in France's presidential race.

PRICE SURGE

Parts of central Europe had under 40 percent of their long-term average rainfall between February and April and the current drought in much of Europe looks set to continue with little relief until June at the earliest, forecasters say.

Drought damage in France combined with weather worries in other regions in Europe and the United States, have made prices soar in the past weeks with a steep rise since early May.

EU new crop wheat futures have gained 34 percent since mid-March, and 22 percent alone over the past two weeks, hitting a new contract high on Thursday.

Fears of scorched harvests have also boosted other grains such as rapeseed and malting barley.

The rise in prices could help compensate for growers' output losses -- but only partly -- many farmers said.

"I have already committed most of my harvest at 154 euros a tonne," said Vincent Boddaert, 34, who grows 240 hectares of land near Steingier's farm in the Seine-et-Marne department.

"I had sold 4 lots (of 50 tonnes) on Euronext but then bought them back. I made a loss but I think it's going to rise much higher. I don't believe crops are going to recover," he said looking across his parched wheat field.

(Editing by Marie Maitre and Keiron Henderson)

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