GERMANY: Withered sunflowers, scorched wheat fields, stunted cornstalks -- the farmlands of northern Germany have borne the brunt of this year's extreme heat and record-low rainfall, triggering an epochal drought.
As the blazing sun beats down, combine harvesters working the normally fertile breadbasket of Saxony-Anhalt in former communist East Germany kick up giant clouds of dust as they roll over the cracked earth, reports AFP."It hasn't really rained since April and that's the main growth period for our grains and the other crops -- we've never seen anything like it," said Juliane Stein of Agro Boerdegruen, a farming conglomerate formed after German reunification in 1990.
"We've reached the point here in Germany where we're talking about a natural disaster that's a threat to our livelihood."
A natural disaster is declared by German authorities during a drought when at least 30 percent of the average annual harvest is destroyed.
Given the massive losses feared by the sector this year, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) has called crisis talks on Tuesday to discuss urgent state aid.
While southern Germany has seen largely normal rainfall this year, the north has been in the grip of an unrelenting high-pressure system creating weather conditions more familiar in southern France or Italy.
"We expect billions in losses," DBV president Joachim Rukwied told German media last week.The grain crop alone has shrunk by up to eight million tonnes or around 18 percent this year, stripping 1.4 billion euros ($1.6 billion) from revenues so far.
"The government needs to declare a state of emergency so that farmers in areas hit hardest by the drought can be helped directly with cash aid," Rukwied said.
While the sunshine has fostered larger and sweeter fruit than usual, sugar beets, rapeseed, potato and corn crops have been decimated in the drought, prompting farmers to cut their losses and harvest two to three weeks earlier than usual.
"The cornstalks are knee-high" and are sprouting smaller cobs or none at all, said Stein of Agro Boerdegruen, located about 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of Berlin.
"Normally they should be over two metres by now."
Stein said that to grow crops like potatoes -- a staple of the German diet -- her farms have long relied on watering systems because the region, in the rain shadow of the Harz Mountains, is generally too dry.
However it is too late to expand such systems to other fields this year, and in the long run would be too expensive to justify with other crops.
Meanwhile the knock-on effects of the grain shortage have already been dramatic, depriving farmers of animal feed and sending prices soaring.
Many dairy farmers have responded by selling their livestock. The number of slaughtered cows and heifers surged 10 percent in the first two weeks of July, according to figures from the Federal Agriculture and Nutrition Agency.