Drought shrivels harvest in Central Europe

Farmers in Austria and Hungary are rethinking climate change as a bitter drought tears through their fields. How will they grow food if the weather is so unpredictable?

Standing beside his stunted maize crop Christian Schmidt grasps a cob and twists it from the stalk. It's a fraction of the size it would have been if the rains had come, as usual, in July. Instead he looks out across a scorched field that is barely worth harvesting.

Schmidt is the third generation of his family to earn a living from this land - a 200 hectare crop-farm within sight of the Hungarian border. He's seen good times and bad, but never times like these.

Trockenheit Mais Landwirtschaft Österreich Farmer Schmidt compares cobs Bild: Kerry Skyring, 09.08.2013, Nickelsdorf, Burgenland, Österreich, zugeliefert von Sella Oneko/DW Christian Schmidt assesses the damage to his crop

"When I was young, there were maybe two or three days in July when temperatures were more than 30 degrees but otherwise the temperatures were 25 to 30 degrees," Schmidt said in an interview with DW. He explained that temperatures have been significantly higher in recent years.

"But this year over - 40 degrees - that's a very noticeable difference," he added.

Climbing cost of climate damage

For farmers in Austria and across the border in Hungary this is just the latest bout of extreme weather to ravage their fields. In March, temperatures dropped to record lows. This was followed in May and June by some of the worst flooding the region has seen in recent history. Now, high temperatures and poor rainfall threaten to wipeout what is left of this year's harvest.

"This drought is catatrophic. The farmers have suffered massive damage and the heat continues," said Austrian agriculture minister Nikolas Berlakovich when he visited the province where Christian Schmidt tils the land. Berlakovich estimates says the damage could cost "several hundred million euros.".

Trockenheit Mais Landwirtschaft Österreich Drought affected maize Bild: Kerry Skyring, 09.08.2013, Nickelsdorf, Burgenland, Österreich, zugeliefert von Sella Oneko/DW Damage caused by extreme weather costs millions of euros

Austria has set up a disaster fund to compensate people hit by natural events like floods and drought, but the fund simply cannot cover all of today's claims. A decade ago between 50 and 60 million euros were paid out annually. In 2012, that figure more than doubled - and costs are expected to be even higher this year.

"We have to alter the disaster funds and we have to get the change in rules approved in Brussels," said Berlakovich, referring to the European Commission's requirement that member states get approval before providing direct assistance to farmers. The minister urged farmers to buy feed for their animals now and to retain receipts so that when government funds are released they can claim for compensation.