France declares agricultural 'disaster' after spring frosts damage vineyards

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The French government has declared an agricultural disaster after an unusual early spring frost damaged crops and vines across the country.

Agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said Thursday that the cold snap with below-zero temperatures this week had been "particularly difficult" for the sector with "significant losses" registered.

"We are completely mobilised so that the accompanying measures can be put in place as quickly as possible," he told Franceinfo public radio.

"Specifically, we will implement a regime of agricultural disaster," saying tax breaks could be envisaged as well as help from banks and insurance companies.

A dark week

He described the situation as "quite exceptional", with vineyards hit but also other crops like beet and rapeseed in regions spanning the north of the country to the southeast.

Below-freezing temperatures in the Drome and Ardèche regions of central southern France have led to fruit farmers losing up to 90 percent of their apricot and peach harvest.

The CNIV national winemakers’ association warned the situation is “one of the most serious in recent decades" and will cut production this year.

"We already know that we will have a very low harvest in 2021," said Jean-Marie Barillere, head of the CEEV, a European wine trade group.

The frost has "affected 80 percent of French vineyards", he said. "Arborists and wine growers have just suffered a dark week."

Frost prevention

In a bid to ward off the frost, French winemakers lit thousands of small fires which caused a layer of smog in the southeast of the country.

The practice of lighting fires or candles near vines or fruit trees to prevent the formation of frost is a long-standing technique used in early spring when the first green shoots are vulnerable to the cold.

Whole hillsides look as if they are ablaze.

Regional air quality monitoring body Atmo Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes issued a warning about the fire-induced fine-particle pollution in the southeast region which includes the city of Lyon where a layer of smog was visible on Thursday.

Some winegrowers and fruit farmers also use wind machines to keep frost from setting in.

Others use water sprinklers, allowing a fine coating hitting sub-zero temperatures as the ice acts like a mini-igloo.

Nothing worked

This year's two-night cold snap could be particularly damaging for winemakers and other fruit farmers because the freezing temperatures came after a week of unseasonably warm weather.

In the wine heartland around Bordeaux, producers' body CIVB warned that it was "certain the spring frost will severely affect the harvesting volumes in 2021".

Winegrowers and farmers told AFP of their desperation as they inspected the damage on Thursday morning after a second night of trying to keep the ice at bay.

"We worked on the main hillside and burned straw bales and piles of wood to try to save what we could," said winemaker Remy Nodin from Saint-Peray in the Ardeche region of southeast France.

"The aim was to create a blanket of smoke so that when the sun came up it didn't burn the vines because of the humidity," he added.

"We watered, we heated, nothing worked," said Stephane Leyronas, a kiwi grower, in the nearby Aubenas area.

"I used a flamethrower and lit more than 700 small fires which didn't even last the night," he added.

(with AFP)