France triggers disaster fund for drought-hit farmers

France, Europe’s biggest grain producer, announced aid on Friday for farmers hit by the severe drought that has afflicted the country since the summer, along with much of northern Europe.

The government will tap an agricultural disaster fund for farmers as part of a broader aid package unveiled by Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume during a visit to eastern France, where he met grain and livestock producers.

Unusually hot and dry summer weather parched land, dried up rivers and ravaged crops across France, parts of Germany and Scandinavia, leaving water levels extremely low.

Autumn harvests of crops such as maize and sugar beet have been badly hit, while dry soils threaten to hamper planting for the next season.

Rain forecast for coming days in parts of the country offers little respite, as meteorologists and farmers say several weeks of heavy rainfall are needed to compensate for the accumulated shortages. The rainfall deficit continued into September, when it stood at 70 percent, according to forecaster Meteo France.

A resulting scarcity of hay and pasture is likely to force farmers to sell more animals, the Confederation Paysanne farm union warned on Friday – which in turn will “have an impact on the price of the already weak meat market”.

Even before the drought, financial strains were blamed for suicides among French farmers reportedly averaging one a day.

Aid payments will be bolstered by a further 15 million euros ($17 million) in tax breaks on social charges paid by farmers, under the measures announced on Friday.

Beyond farming, historically low water levels on the Rhine river are hampering vessels’ movements and squeezing supplies of important industrial commodities in northwestern Europe.

Other major transport rivers including the northeastern Meuse and southeastern Rhone have recorded low flow rates.

French utility EDF said on Friday low water levels had forced it to reduce output from its Fessenheim 2 nuclear reactor, which is cooled by water from the Rhine.

($1 = 0.8804 euros)

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