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French cheese stocks suffer due to summer drought

Stocks of French Comté and Cantal cheese may drop significantly this year due to the effects of the summer heatwave and drought, producers have said, with some saying this is “the worst year ever”.

Producers have said that drought conditions from June onwards caused a drop in the amount of food farmers were able to feed their cattle, meaning that there was less milk to produce the famous cheese.

Less milk means fewer new cheeses in the maturation rooms, meaning that stocks for future years are expected to be depleted, and prices may rise to as much as €300 per tonne for Comté - around three times more than usual - and could double for Cantal.

Comté, from the Doubs (Bourgogne-Franche-Comté) is vulnerable to changing weather conditions, farmers say, and a “complicated” year like 2018 may have far-reaching effects.

The cheese flavour may also be slightly different to normal, due to a different chemical composition.

In the Cantal (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes), some cheese producers have even been forced to stop making new cheeses for October, due to a lack of ingredients, as milk cows continue to be less productive and feed is still scarce.

Philippe Mercier, milk producer in the hamlet of Petit-Paris near Chasnans (Doubs), said: “The impact on production is directly related to stocks of feed. We could see a drop of 10-45% depending on geographic area.

“I started the season with 150 bundles of 400kg - today I have nothing of that left. Luckily, I bought some more before the summer, because today the prices are prohibitive. I have had colleagues who have taken out loans over five or six years, to buy feed, as the prices tripled. Two years like this, and we’re finished.”

Cows eat around 20kg of feed each per day, with their milk production directly affected if they eat less.

Claude Philippe, a cheesemonger in Septfontaine (Doubs), estimates that he will see up to 10% less stock of Comté this year, but does not except a similar drop in quality of the product itself.

He said: “The Comté will suffer in quantity, but not in quality. Cows need feed and water, and in hot drought seasons, these things are harder to come by. But as we say, ‘a cheesemonger likes to fill his shelves’. We take what nature gives. There may be fewer cheeses, but their value will go up.”

Two producers of Cantal, brothers Jean-Pierre and Laurent Manhes, who run a 50-cow, 80 hectare farm in Saint-Jacques-des-Blats, say that the situation has left them €15,000 less well-off this year so far.

Gérard Coquard, administrator at Comté cheese group le Comité Interprofessionnel Syndicat du Comté, described 2018 as “complicated”.

He said: “[Comté especially] is a long-kept cheese, so you have to spread its production over a year. The management of food is not easy. In this respect, this will be the worst year we have ever had.”

Now, farmers are beginning to prepare for next year, and fear that another hot summer drought could have an even greater impact.

Mr Mercier said: “We could have 50,000 fewer litres of milk, which translates to a loss of €25,000. It could become difficult. And we are some of the luckier ones in the area.”

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