Instead of shining purple, France’s lavender fields looked gray this summer in parts: A caterpillar, which is said to have reached Europe with the wind, has eaten its fill of the plants.
A caterpillar may have cost France’s lavender farmers millions in crop losses this year.
“There are dozens and dozens of hectares that weren’t harvested because it wasn’t worth it. There was nothing left,” says Alain Aubanel, head of the Manosque-based Association for Perfume, Aroma and Medicinal Plants PPAM, describing the situation. Farmers would have lost 90 percent of the harvest. “I estimate the loss at several million euros,” he told the German Press Agency. The Ministry of Agriculture wrote of serious damage.
Traditional growing areas affected
The culprits are said to be cutworm caterpillars. The moths are said to have come to France with the sirocco, a hot wind from North Africa. The caterpillars then ate lavender stalks, drying out the plants.
Instead of shining violet, the lavender fields, which are also popular as a holiday destination and postcard motif, appeared partly grey-brown this summer. The departments Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Vaucluse and Drôme were mainly affected – and there especially the traditional cultivation areas in the mountains, i.e. exactly the areas that are particularly endangered because the farmers can hardly grow anything else there, as Aubanel says.
The reason the mountainous acreage is so much more affected is because the harvest started later there. “We found out around July 14 that there were caterpillars. The areas on the plains had practically finished harvesting by then, while it hadn’t even started in our mountains.”
Very high losses
Aubanel estimates that in the mountainous growing region in the Drôme at least 50 percent of the harvest has been lost to the harmful caterpillar. “In the mountain areas it was a bit of a disaster.” In some cases, the losses were even significantly higher. “I know people who have lost 80 percent of their crops, even 90 percent. If these people don’t get financial help, they are at risk of bankruptcy.” The association is now hoping for such support from the state.
The caterpillars are not entirely new to lavender and lavandin farmers. The little animals had also struck in 2018 and 2019, but by no means to the same extent as now. “This year we didn’t see the problem coming,” says Aubanel. The insect traps were almost empty. “And so no one was on their guard and we had a colossal attack.” One will now try to strengthen the system of traps. In the coming year, all farmers will certainly be particularly vigilant.
But Aubanel is also concerned about another factor. “We’re heading into hotter and hotter times. We’re concerned that the insect might become endemic in some regions.” This could also become a problem for other cultures. Because while the caterpillars mainly fed on lavender, according to Aubanel they also attacked chickpeas and tomatoes.