HARVEST in France of this year’s winter and spring crops is humming along, according to the French Ministry for Agriculture. One of the hottest and driest springs on record has promoted French crop development to such an extent that the harvest pace is well ahead of both last year and the five-year average.
While the hot and dry weather is great for harvest, cereal production is expected to be down significantly, and concerns are growing about the possible impact on this season’s corn production, especially with a second wave of scorching weather forecast this week.
Wheat, barley, durum harvests surge
The French national establishment for agriculture and sea products, FranceAgriMer, released data last week putting soft wheat harvest at 50 per cent completed as of July 11. French farmers had only harvested 14pc of their crop a week earlier, and just 3pc at the same time in 2021. The durum wheat harvest was 82pc done as of last Monday, compared to 50pc on July 4 and 37pc a year earlier. Harvesting in the southernmost regions had reached about 90pc, but the northernmost regions of Hauts-de-France and Normandy were only beginning last week.
The winter barley harvest is completed in most districts across the country, with 97pc in the bin at the beginning of last week compared to 83pc the previous Monday and only 39pc at the same time last year. As of the beginning of last week, the northern regions of Normandy and Brittany still had around 13pc and 20pc, respectively, to harvest. Reaping of the spring barley fields is also motoring along, with 41pc of the total planted area covered by July 11, compared to 14pc on 4 July, and 4pc on the same day in 2021.
Low yields speed progress
The massive jump in harvest progress highlights how poor the yields must be in some areas, allowing headers to navigate the fields far quicker than usual. So, it was a surprise to see the soft wheat crop ratings increase for the first time in many weeks. FranceAgriMer called the good-to-excellent category 1pc higher at 64pc, suggesting anticipated yields will improve as the harvest gets into full swing in the north. However, the poor-to-very poor category also increased by 1pc to 14pc, underscoring the weather-induced yield issues in the south. Crop conditions for both winter and spring barley were unchanged week on week.
It cut the country’s wheat production forecast from 35.4 million tonnes (Mt) last harvest to 32.9Mt this year. Further cuts are possible if yields fail to improve as expected as the harvest moves north. However, a drop in the average yield from 7.1t/ha last harvest to the current projection of 6.9t/ha is not the only contributing factor, as the country’s planted area is also down by 5.6pc.
Winter and spring barley production is forecast at 11.2Mt collectively, down 2.4pc on 2021-22. The lost output will put a severe dent in the country’s exportable surplus of cereals, just as global consumers search for reliable substitutes for stranded Ukrainian grains.
Strong wheat exports tipped
That said, FranceAgriMer remains confident wheat exports will increase on the back of the Black Sea supply issues. The state-backed agency expects 2022-23 season wheat exports to countries outside the European Union to rise by 17pc to 10.3Mt compared to 2021-22.
The Maghreb countries of north-west Africa are expected to be responsible for most of this increase, particularly Morocco, now that Algeria has a taste for Russian wheat. Add in the 7.1Mt of exports to fellow European Union member states, and French wheat exports are forecast to increase 3pc year on -year to 17.4Mt, despite the decline in production.
Corn fast to mature
Summer-crop heatwave conditions forecast for France this week have the trade and consumers on edge. The soil-moisture profile is already well below average in many corn-growing districts, just as the crop moves from the vegetative growth phase to the high moisture-dependent reproductive phase.
In the week ending July 11, FranceAgriMer estimated the proportion of the corn crop at the flowering stage rose from 30pc to 67pc. This compared to 9pc one year ago, and emphasises just how quickly the crop has matured under the less-than-favourable conditions. Development was most advanced in the eastern regions of Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes and Alsace. The north-eastern region of Grand-Est, which includes Alsace, had the best crop conditions, with 96pc of the crop rated good or better.
On Monday last week, FranceAgriMer estimated that 83pc of the French corn crop was rated good or excellent, down slightly from 84pc the previous week, which still compares quite favourably with 89pc a year earlier.
However, with moisture demand peaking and the mercury tipped to exceed 40 degrees Celsius in some regions this week, more substantial rating downgrades are expected in coming weeks. Temperatures above 35 degrees commonly lead to incomplete pollination, in turn having a negative impact on final yields. If the hot and dry weather continues without relief for the rest of July, corn-production potential will be eroded very quickly.
The deteriorating harvest outlook in France comes amid a background of significant market uncertainty and volatility. Traders and funds seem to be selling the rumours regarding Ukraine’s potential to return as a major grain exporter rather than looking at cold hard facts. The impracticality of such an outcome will remain high as long as Russia demands the removal of Western sanctions, and Ukraine rightly refuses to demine its Black Sea ports until the invaders go home.