They weren’t the normal headlines associated with farming in Europe. The year 2018 has been one of extreme heat and drought – one of the worst droughts there for decades. With temperatures exceeding 30 Celsius – 86 degrees Fahrenheit – and no rain falling for more than a month, livestock, crops and grass suffered.
Combines headed into the fields earlier than normal, but that wasn’t a good sign either. Yields were much less than normal — and in some cases are less than half of what they should be.
Nordic countries including Sweden, Finland and Norway experienced high temperatures with crop yields almost disappearing daily. The normally luscious green fields of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland wilted to a brown color with water levels so low that governments were forced to ban the use of hoses for a few weeks.
Lithuania and Latvia declared states of emergency. Other countries battled numerous wildfires in forests, grassland and arable crops. News of farm machinery going up in smoke during harvest operations was also widely reported.
Arable crop yields have been hit the hardest, with latest estimates suggesting Germany’s 2018 wheat crop may decrease by 6.5 percent to 22.89 million tons. In Poland the wheat crop is expected to decrease 6.7 percent from the previous year’s harvest, to 10.9 million tons. In Lithuania the harvest could decrease to 3.2 million tons from 3.8 million tons the previous year. Sweden’s wheat harvest is expected to decrease by 15 percent to 20 percent from the previous 2.46 million tons.
Lennart Nilsson, co-chair of the Swedish Farmers Association, said it was the worst drought he had ever personally experienced.
“This is really serious,” he said. “Most of southwest Sweden hasn’t had rain since the first days of May. A very early harvest has started but yields seem to be the lowest for 25 years – 50 percent lower or more in some cases – and it is causing severe losses.”
Farmers in the Netherlands where agriculture is quite intense are also suffering from weeks of high temperatures destroying crops. Even in that country with so many waterways, dykes and the sea, farmers cannot afford the irrigation costs. Some said it would be a waste of money.
Dairy farmer Sicco Hylkema farms near Westhem in the Friesland Province of the Netherlands right beside a lake. He said there was no point in irrigating.
“The ground is so hard right now any water we spray onto the grass will simply run off into the dykes,” he said. “It would be a huge waste of money on diesel to irrigate the lands.
“Some people are comparing this drought to the one in 1976 but it’s my first time farming in such a lack of rain. We just have to wait for rain.”
But vegetable farmers in the Netherlands are continuing to irrigate in order to salvage any yield to help pay the bills.
“We just cannot let the crops go to waste,” said vegetable farmer Thijs Geerse, who runs an organic farm in the Zeewolde region. “We are around 5 metres under sea level here and usually have a moist 2-metre-deep soil but even that is cracking up right now.”
Niels Lindberg Madsen, head of European Union policy at the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, said, “This is the most severe drought we’ve had in 50 or 60 years. Yields are very low simply because there has been no rain, generally speaking, for a couple of months.”
The European Drought Observatory described the drought as “an extensive and severe anomaly” affecting Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, the Baltics, the Netherlands and northern Germany.
A spokeswoman for the EU’s Joint Research Centre, which oversees the observatory, said farmers should prepare to adapt to a warmer climate with “diversification or change of crop types and varieties, but also a more efficient use of water.”
Some countries have asked the European Commission for assistance with drought-related problems. As a response the European Commission decided to temporarily exempt eight countries from an EU environmental requirement aimed at promoting biodiversity, which obliges farmers to leave part of their land fallow. The countries were Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Portugal. That means farmers in those countries can use the non-producing land to grow food for their livestock until the drought ends.