Record drought grips Germany’s breadbasket

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.

Record drought grips Germany's breadbasket
File photo: DPA

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.

“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 Bördegrün, 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 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 Bördegrün, 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.

While Sweden and Greece have been ravaged by devastating forest fires, Germany has been less afflicted due to its less vulnerable types of vegetation and higher concentration of fire brigades.

However grain fields mark an exception and Saxony-Anhalt has seen wide swathes of farmland go up in flames.

“Wheat when it's dry is as flammable as straw,” Stein said.

A drive through the farmland east of the River Elbe shows crops covered with the black soot of recent fires, with 70 hectares (170 acres) near the village of Barleben bearing the apocalyptic remains of a spark that raged across the parched field this month.

So will northern Germany become a region of olives, wine and citrus fruits? Stein said farmers here will likely find other ways to adapt.

No-till farming, which allows seeds to be sown without disturbing the soil, and the use of mulch to improve germination rates are two techniques already in practice.

Meanwhile seed breeding is developing crops that are more resistant to heat and dryness. However the process can take a decade or more and the European Court of Justice ruled last week it should be considered genetic manipulation and thus subject to stricter scrutiny by regulators.

Thomas Endrulat of the German Weather Service said it had been at least 15 years since the country had experienced a similarly hot, dry summer.

Such extremes matched forecasts seen in climate change models for Europe but he warned against drawing catastrophic conclusions from an “exceptional” year.

“You are seeing a rising number of heatwaves, just like you have hard winters or heavy rainfall and floods,” Endrulat told AFP.

“That bandwidth is part of our weather in central Europe.”

But for farmers in the grip of this year's drought, that is cold comfort.

“You plant the grain in the autumn, it germinates and then it needs water in the spring to grow,” Stein said. “If that doesn't happen, there's nothing you can do.”

READ ALSO: Heatwave on the horizon: temperatures in Germany set to rise

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Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?