Should the rapid pace of French combines be ringing alarm bells?

Sure, a speedy harvest is typically a bonus for growers. It implies crops being harvested at the optimal moment, and tucked away in storage early, away from weather risks.

However, there are limits.

The crops which get fastest in the barn can be the smallest – forced by drought into early immaturity, which allows a timely start for fieldwork, which thanks to diminished yields can be over and done with rapidly too.

That was the case, for instance, for US corn in the notorious drought year of 2012 (which like 2022 witnessed a second successive La Nina), when the yield plunged to a 17-year low.

That harvest was (and remains) the first to start and finish of any on data going back to 1995.

Quick march

This year’s French soft wheat harvest certainly counts as a timely one.

Its mid-June start was the earliest in more than a decade, official data show, with 2011 (for which only limited statistics are available) the last to get off the blocks by then.

This year’s harvest has progressed quickly too, getting to the half-way stage on July 11, neck and neck with 2011.

In getting to 84% completion by the start of this week, as FranceAgriMer data on Friday revealed, it forged well ahead.

Yield prospects

History suggests that this does mean that a below-par yield looks likely this year.

Faster harvesting years for French wheat farmers – such as 2020 and 2018 as well as 2011 – have tended to be less productive ones, producing yields below 7.0 tonnes per hectare, and below year-before and average levels.

Judged on this basis this year’s yield looks likely to fall further below 7.0 tonnes per hectare than the 0.01 tonnes that officials have forecast.

A figure a little below 6.9 tonnes per hectare would be on the cards should 2022 crop fall below the trailing 10-year average to the same extent as 2011, 2018 and 2020.

That would be equivalent to 500,000-600,000 tonnes less in production terms, compared with the current official forecast of a 32.9m-tonne harvest.

Quality pay-off

Not that French growers should complain too much.

The heat and drought that has limited wheat potential this year is likely to have supported quality, as co-operative Axereal signalled, besides reducing the need for crop drying at a time of high energy costs.

(Their worst recent performance, in 2016, was actually caused by wet and cloudy weather.)

Where heat and dryness, if they persist, could yet cause an upset is in corn production. But at least, in spurring the need for feed alternatives, that would add support to wheat values.