Heat and drought damage Corn crops in the Vorgebirge can no longer be salvaged

Bornheim · The months-long drought has been very hard on farmers in the Vorgebirge area in NRW. It’s an area that produces many types of fruits and vegetables, which find their way into our supermarkets. Irrigation has prevented the worst economic consequences for some.

A field near Sechtem with dried-out corn crops. The plants will end up in a biogas plant.

A field near Sechtem with dried-out corn crops. The plants will end up in a biogas plant.

Foto: Hans-Peter Fuss

Norbert Pesch crouches down in a rhubarb crop on Neuer Heerweg between Brenig and Waldorf. Normally, the plants bear large, dark green leaves. But now the leaves are brown and withered, lying on the ground. Even the rains of the past few days have not been able to save anything. A large part of the rhubarb harvest has been destroyed. It’s the same for other crops that could not be irrigated.

But, as the 59-year-old farmer points out, he and his fellow farmers are now benefiting from the fact that the Vorgebirge Water and Soil Association set up a network of pipes in the 1970’s to irrigate the crops. The water for that irrigation system comes from wells. As a result, he got by relatively unscathed in this dry summer.

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Pesch runs the business together with his son Sebastian. In 2007, he made the decision to move to Neuer Heerweg, because there was no way to expand the farm at the family's old farm in Breniger Hang. The Pesch family farms on around 150 hectares, 90 of them planted with vegetables: lettuce, rhubarb, mini-romaine lettuce, and cabbage and root parsley in winter. They deliver the produce to Edeka-Fruchtkontor in Roisdorf. From there, it reaches numerous Edeka stores in North Rhine-Westphalia via three distribution centers.

Fortunately, there was some rain in May, says Norbert Pesch. Because without rain or irrigation, planting in the summer is not possible, he says. "The new lettuce plants in particular need permanent support from water during their five-week growth until harvest, but they also manage with fewer nutrients than, say, a three-kilo cauliflower," explains the experienced farmer. The water is taken from the first layer of groundwater. Pesch needs about 300 to 500 cubic meters a day. The lettuce harvest made it "by the skin of my teeth”, he said.

Extreme damage to the corn crop

Using rhubarb as an example, Pesch explains what is currently happening in the plant. After harvesting, which begins in April, the plant sprouts new stems and leaves. The leaves store energy and nutrients for winter dormancy. Withered leaves, however, can no longer absorb light, energy; they put the plant into an emergency mode. "Next year's yield will be lower because of that," Pesch predicts.

If the economic losses in vegetable crops are limited, the damage to corn, on the other hand, is "extreme," according to Pesch. This is because corn crops are usually not irrigated due to the size of the plants. So these days, instead of lush green cornfields in the Vorgebirge and the Voreifel, we are looking at yellow cornfields with bone-hard, dried-up cobs that are no longer edible. They are not fit for humans or for animals. This means a large part of the corn production will not end up in canned food or used as animal feed, but in the biogas plant.

Concern for strawberries and asparagus.

Corn sown in May germinated during the dry period. For that reason, it had no chance to form deep roots to get enough nutrients in the soil. All of the plant's energy, he says, is put into forming the cobs, which results in it being taken away from the leaves, causing them to wither. Pesch estimates that corn yields are down 30 to 40 percent compared to last year. It's even worse for sugar beets, he said. "They can only be plowed up," he says.

As for the future of strawberry and asparagus cultivation in the region, Pesch is pessimistic: "Cultivation will no longer be worthwhile in the medium term because it is more expensive than importing the produce from southern Europe or even South America due to labor costs.”

Orig. text: Hans-Peter Fuss

Translation: ck

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