After the drought is before the drought

Last year's drought is still impacting soils in Europe, and though it is still early in the year, farmers already have to water their fields. Is this set to become the new normal?

As farmer Markus Schwarz drives his spade into the ground, the soil he brings to the surface is so dry that the wind blows it away.

Nature and Environment | 26.04.2019

"We can see here that the first 10 cm of the surface are as dry as dust," he says. "But it ought to be moist so the plants can strike roots." 

Schwarz tends to 150 hectares of lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and cauliflower on his farm in western Germany's Rhineland region. Temperatures there have already climbed to 25 degrees Celsius, though it's still only spring. 

"People might enjoy that but we're starting to get worried that this year will be like the last," Schwarz told DW. 

Nature and Environment | 19.09.2018

As one of Germany's fourth driest years  since the National Meteorological Service (DWD), started recording rainfall patterns in 1881, Schwarz says he had to water his fields with an overhead sprinkling system from last July to September. Although he managed to save most of his harvest, high water costs minimized his profits.

Farmer Markus Schwarz worries about the parched soils on his field and what another dry, hot year would mean for his harvest

Others simply lost what they planted. According to the German Farmer's Association, the 2018 drought destroyed harvests worth between 2 and 3 billion euros ($2.2 to 3.3 billion).

Read moreGerman farmers wait for aid, months after drought

Dry soil despite rain

Although the outgoing winter saw normal rainfall of 210 liters per square meters, Schwarz's field is already too dry for his vegetables.

Corina Schube of DWD says that is because "the rainfall of the winter couldn't compensate for the enormous deficit resulting from the extremely hot and dry summer in 2018. We are lacking between 200 and 300 liters of water per square meter."

Infografik Dürre Deutschland EN

Agronomist Peter Gerandt from the University of Göttingen describes the current situation as "very, very tense" in some areas of Germany. "The winter rain was sometimes only enough to dampen the top 20 centimeters [of the soil]."

He has been examining water reserves in and around Göttingen, a city in the northwest of the country, and has found that last year's drought dried out the soil at depths of up to two meters. That is bad for plants like rape and corn that need a lot of water, but also for wheat and sugar beets whose roots reach into the deeper lying water reserves.

Read more: Current heat waves are linked to climate change, scientists confirm

Gerandt says the soil will take years to recover. Even when it does rains, because the fields are so dry, they can't absorb the water fast enough, which means valuable humus and nutrients can be washed away. Nutrients from fertilizers can thereby end up in the groundwater causing higher nitrate content levels.

Parched soils are not only a problem forfarmers in Germany, but for those in much of the rest of Europe as well.

Countries in eastern and northern Europe were particularly badly affected by last year's drought, and according to Sergiy Moroz, expert for water and biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau, they could experience more of the same in the future. 

"The frequency and intensity of droughts will increase due to climate change," Moroz told DW.

Tackling climate change on the field

Weathering the elements with water

Hans-Heinrich Grünhagen has an arable farm a 90-minute drive north of Berlin. He says he has noticed climate change in the extended growing period of his crops. While even a few years ago, he had to harvest his potatoes by early October, he says that has changed, because the frosts no longer arrive as early in the year.

Tackling climate change on the field

A bag of spuds

Grünhagen expects to get at least this number of potatoes from each plant, but because they wither in temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), keeping them healthy is not easy. The only option he has is to water them. Even so, this summer of extreme heat means he's looking at half his usual yield.

Tackling climate change on the field

A whole lot of rye

He grows many different kinds of grain and says nothing about their harvest time has changed. Still, they sprout and grow earlier, making them more vulnerable to late frosts, which have not been eradicated by climate change. Where possible, he is now switching to crop varieties that can cope with more sun.

Tackling climate change on the field

Bitten by the frost

Vintners are facing similar problems. In western Germany, warmer daytime temperatures in North Rhine-Westphalia's (NRW) wine-growing region coax vines into producing buds earlier than they used to. As with other plants, that makes them vulnerable on nights when the temperature falls below zero degrees Celsius. As they're particularly sensitive, once they've been bitten, they tend to die.

Tackling climate change on the field

Bringing the grapes in

Long summers of extreme heat also make the grapes ripen much earlier, meaning they have to be harvested earlier. The higher temperatures affect their taste. But keeping them cool enough during the wine-making process requires a huge technological effort. When possible, vintners try to pick the grapes in the middle of the night or in the early morning before they've absorbed the warmth of the day.

Tackling climate change on the field

A potential silver lining?

Some in the NRW wine-making community see the changing weather patterns as an opportunity to experiment with growing grape sorts that previously couldn't have weathered the German climate. But they don't want to lose their long-standing reputation for producing the white wines for which the region has become globally well-known.

Tackling climate change on the field

Caring for the ground so it can take care of us

There are calls from within Germany's farming community to rethink the country's entire food production system and to put more emphasis on improving the quality of the ground on which the nation relies. Measures such as planting more trees and bushes to stop drying winds, and preventing excessive soil compaction through the use of heavy machines could help.

Tackling climate change on the field

How to be healthy

Healthy soil, says Felix zu Löwenstein, Chairman of the German Federation of the Organic Food Industry, has much to do with how much humus and how much life exists within it. The higher the content, the greater the soil's ability to absorb water, making it more resilient both in times of drought and extreme rainfall.

He is calling for sustainable and efficient water management, and says politicians shouldn't dilute water protection laws or allow increased use of groundwater.

"These are not sustainable solutions," he said. "Farmers have to prepare and adapt to the impacts of climate change instead of continuing with business as usual." 

Groundwater could become scarce

But Peter Gerandt says if this year is as dry as the last, farmers who don't irrigate their fields should expect "enormous harvest losses, way higher than in 2018."

Infografik Dürre in Deutschland Niederschlag EN

Markus Schwarz has been watering his lettuces since the middle of April. At 200 euros per hectare, plus the investment in wells, pumps and irrigation systems, it's an expensive undertaking. And because farmers rely on groundwater, which Gerandt says could dry up in the future, as a solution, it offers no long-term security.

"We need rain. If there is a second, third, fourth or fifth dry year — we hope this won't happen — then we will have to see where the water comes from," Gerandt said. "We can't take it from dams or from the groundwater. Irrigation is not the ultimate solution."

Markus Schwarz checks the weather forecast. A thunderstorm is on its way. "Finally," he says. "We need two, three weeks of light rain. Then everything will be alright."

That evening, it rains heavily, saving him from irrigating his fields. At least for one day. 

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