Romanian farmers kneel in field to pray for rain

LIPOVU, Jun 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) Farmers in southern Romania, despairing of scorched crops and dried-up wells, prayed for rain on Friday in the face of the worst drought in 50 years.

About 200 farmers in the village of Lipovu, 320 kms (200 miles) southeast of Bucharest, united in desperation, knelt in a maize field together with their Orthodox priest and prayed.

"Lord, please show mercy and give these people a few drops of rain. Please save their children, cattle and crops," priest George Radulescu said, pointing a crucifix at the sky.

But there was not even a distant rumble of thunder, only a clear blue sky with wisps of white clouds drifting overhead.

As Radulescu performed the religious service a baby began to cry in the crowd. He went silent after his young mother unbuttoned her blouse and began to breast-feed him.

Lipovu is among scores of settlements in Romania hit by drought since March. Some 3,200 people live in the village and farming is their sole source of income.

High temperatures over the past weeks seared crops on some 2.6 million hectares (6.42 million acres) and estimated losses so far amount to 6.5 trillion lei ($308 million), the farm ministry said on Friday.

"Many farmers here are desperate, they lost all crops, maize, wheat, everything," said Lipovu vice-mayor Ilie Joita as he stood in the field.

The maize looked withered and invaded by weeds.

Drought has drained irrigation ponds, parched the soil and withered the crops across Romania, turning fields of wheat and maize into dry stubble.

The agriculture ministry predicted the wheat harvest would be some 3.7 million tons this year. But farmers and analysts say it will be only about 2.5 million tons and warn that Romania could face a serious grain shortage.

"People had to slaughter or sell their cattle. They have no fodder and wells are dry. What shall we do now?" Joita said.

Ioana Nicula, a villager in Lipovu with a two-hectare plot, said her family of four lived on the meagre monthly allowance given by the government to her children.

"How can one survive on 400,000 lei ($20) a month? Last year we harvested 4,000 kilograms of wheat per hectare. Now we will get some 500 kilos," she said.

Insurance in Romania's farming sector is almost non-existent and access to credits is restricted due to high interest rates and red tape, growers say.

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