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UPDATE 1-French soft wheat sowing nears halfway point

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PARIS, Oct 21 (Reuters) - French farmers had sown 46% of the expected soft wheat area for next year's harvest by Oct. 17, compared with 21% a week earlier and ahead of year-ago progress of 36%, farm office FranceAgriMer said on Friday.

Farmers also advanced swiftly in winter barley sowing last week, with 67% of the expected area drilled by Monday against 37% a week earlier, FranceAgriMer's cereal crop progress report showed.

Winter barley sowing was also ahead of the pace last year, when 54% of the area had been drilled by the same week.

Mild weather has helped autumn field work in France, the European Union's biggest grain producer. Showers this week may slow planting although the moisture should benefit the emergence of crops and ease a water deficit following summer drought.

Grain maize harvesting was nearly finished, with 92% of the area cut by Monday, FranceAgriMer said.

That compared with 83% the prior week and just 30% a week ago.

The maize harvest remained 28 days ahead of last year's pace and 18 days ahead of the five-year average, FranceAgriMer said.

Harvesting started early in late August after an exceptionally hot and dry summer accelerated plant growth.

The harsh weather also stressed crops and is expected to lead to the smallest French maize harvest in three decades. (Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Jan Harvey and Mark Potter)

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