“C’est une catastrophe”, says Eric, standing outside our gate in his dust-covered t-shirt, shorts, and wellies. He has come to load up the huge round bales of straw that dot the field across the lane like weird monuments to the blazing sun. From a field of around five acres he has produced only eleven bales of straw – winter bedding for his white Charolais cows – which is, as he says, catastrophically low.
The summer here in Burgundy has been hot, and dry. We have had no significant rain since May, and even now, as September winds down towards October, there is not a cloud in the sky and the daytime temperatures reach 30ºc. The ground underfoot is rock-solid. The trees are shedding their leaves without the usual autumn display of colours, the foliage simply shrivelling to grey-brown before being blown across the fields by hot winds that kick up dust into the sky as they whistle across the land. The grass in the meadows in yellow and coarse, the September growth cancelled by the lack of rain and the fierce heat, with the days now too short and the nights too cold. It’s been the second-hottest summer since records began, with temperatures across the whole of France being unusually high for an unusually prolonged period.
On our smallholding this has added challenges to the daily routines, though nothing catastrophic. We’ve had to water the vegetable patch more regularly, but because as we draw water from the well – which is yet to run dry – this is not really an issue save for the extra time taken. One of our young fruit trees is dead – brittle twigs and cracked bark. Our field is home to just five sheep, so there is still grass enough for them to graze, albeit yellowed and tough. The long hot days have, in fact, been a boon in some ways. Our crop of aubergines has been spectacular, with plenty to eat fresh as well as a good amount now dehydrated and packed away for the winter months. Peppers, chillies, tomatoes – all have loved the heat and sunshine and given us yields and flavours to reflect this. On the other hand, courgettes have given roughly half what they gave last year. There is little in the way of flowers for our bees, and we are considering feeding them a sugar solution to help them put away some more honey for the cold winter days ahead.
The months since June have been strangely quiet. The heat has turned the summer into as much of a desert as the coldest of winters. There has been almost no birdsong, just the occasional cries of hungry buzzards and kites. I have seen fewer dragonflies, fewer frogs and toads. The newts and salamanders of last year have been entirely absent, and the swallows have departed early. Wasps and hornets have enjoyed a splendid time, however, and are now feasting in their hundreds on the pears dropped from our fruit trees, buzzing alarmingly every time I pass. The mild winter that preceded the spring has meant a plague of flies, who congregate like a horrible carpet on the walls of the house at dusk to absorb the last of the day’s warmth from the earth walls. The ground in the field and in the garden is honeycombed by tunnels; voles, mice, rats, moles. Some life thrives in the heat. Most wilts away, or hides.
My plans for autumn foraging have been thrown into disarray. With no rain, the forest floor is barren of any fungi, whereas this time last year I was returning with a couple of kilos of mushrooms each trip. The hedges are loaded with blackberries that are tiny and hard, the lack of moisture resulting in fruit that is almost desiccated on the bramble. If we do not have any significant rain in the next couple of weeks, mushroom season will be a write-off. But all of this pales when compared to the troubles the local cattle farms are now dealing with.
Eric owns most of the land that surrounds our smallholding, and usually has small herds of beef cattle wandering and grazing the interconnected meadows at this time of year. For a while, earlier in the summer, the field behind ours was home to several dozen young white cows. We supply water in exchange for winter hay for our sheep. This year the amount of water we supplied is double that of last year. In the mornings the cows would walk, single file, to the water trough just behind the hedge that separates our land from Eric’s. They would drink deeply, the sound of the refilling trough mingled with the sound of the cattle as they took long draughts of cool water, a sound I now associate with summer. This year, as the heat and dry took its toll on the land, the morning procession became a trudge, with great clouds of dust being kicked up as the cows walked between the water and the shade of the oaks on the other edge of the field. After a month or so of this, Eric was forced to take the cows off the field and move them to somewhere he could feed them more easily. He is now, along with all the other beef farmers in the area, using hay put aside for the winter to feed his cattle. This means there will be no feed at all stored to get through the winter, and he will have to buy some in. As this is the case across much of Europe this year, feed prices will be higher.
Crops of sugar beet, corn, potatoes, and grass have been severely hit, with many farmers forced to harvest a month earlier than usual. In Germany the drought has been so severe that farmers have called for €1 billion to be made available, saying it is a natural disaster that threatens their livelihoods. Many dairy farmers have responded by selling their livestock. The number of slaughtered cows and heifers surged by 10% in the first two weeks of July, according to the Federal Agriculture and Nutrition Agency. This increase in beef on the market will drive prices down, meaning that Eric and his colleagues, as well as spending more on feed, will most likely sell their cows for less money. A catastrophe indeed.
Whether or not this is a taste of things to come remains to be seen. It is tempting to invoke climate change as a reason for this year’s drought, but without more data there is no pattern yet to discern. It is tempting to see the problems livestock farmers are facing as a consequence of their own trade, with cattle farming and its associated industries contributing a large percentage of greenhouse emissions. Yet there are ways of farming beef that have less impact of the environment, and Eric’s methods are certainly vastly more sustainable than the huge farms of the Americas and beyond; indeed he has recently begun the long process of registering the farm as organic.
In the medium term, the effects of all this are difficult to predict. More feed will need to be imported, causing more of the environmental problems associated with mass transport. Beef wholesale prices will be lower initially, but possibly climb as more small-scale farmers go out of business; organic farming is expensive. Local, organic meat will gradually be replaced by factory-farmed imports. The feedback loop grows. Mass-produced food feeds climate change feeds implosion of small-scale farms feeds mass-production. The long-term effects will be worse.
So today we wait for rain, and hope for a cooler, wetter, year next year. The cows wait for hay to be delivered by tractor, lowing in the dust and sheltering from the sun in the shade of the old oaks who shed their leaves too quickly and too early. And the sun still shines, hot.
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