After ten days of touring Southern Brazil in early February, 34 U.S. farmers from 10 states came away very impressed with this country’s agricultural potential, despite the drought that withered crops on most of the farms we visited.
“It knocked my socks off,” says Karen Furst, who owns 4,000 acres of farmland in Colorado and Kansas. “Certainly Brazil is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary competition. I expected them to be quite a few years behind us, but they seem neck-and-neck with U.S. agriculture.”
Furst was not alone in her viewpoints. Several farmers echoed her sentiments.
“It just amazes me they can grow the bushels here, year in and year out,” says Kenny Falwell, who farms in Newport, Ark. “This red soil does not look very productive, but as long as the rains keep coming, they will keep producing.”
Rain – or lack of it - was an issue during our trip, which took us through Londrina, Maringa and Cascavel, where we spent a day at the outstanding “Show Rural Coopavel.” Near the falls at Foz do Iguacu along the Paraguayan border, we visited Julio Bergamasco’s farm, where he told us how drought had clipped soybean yields by two-thirds.
“This is the first time in all the years I’ve been farming we’ve had a dry season like this,” he told us. His family was gracious enough to feed all of us a fantastic Brazilian-style lunch complete with a huge rack of beef ribs straight off the firepit. The Brazilians don’t do anything small.
Our farmers were also impressed by the number of crops that can be planted and harvested off tropical soils with little, if any, threat of frost. “I’m amazed that every little patch is planted to soybeans or corn,” says Falwell. “With all these second crop corn acres, I’m wondering what kind of impact they will eventually have on the world corn market.”
Researchers at Brazil’s state-run ag research company, Embrapa, explained that the red soils were actually quite deep and well drained. Embrapa played a key role in developing soybean varieties that yield well in the tropics, we learned.
Our tour took us to the older, more established regions of southern Brazil – not the vast (and flatter) fields further north in states like Mato Grosso. The Americans noted that most of the fieldwork we saw was being done with smaller, less modern equipment.
“We haven’t seen much of the newer equipment in the field yet. I saw a lot of 12-15-ft. headers and 15-ft. drills,” says Falwell. “We used this equipment 30 years ago. It’s amazing the technology they don’t have, yet, I can see that it’s coming.”
Rising land values
Another surprise, notes Jim Sullivan, Ft. Dodge, Iowa, was that land prices in this region were similar to the Corn Belt. Two farmers quoted farmland values at around $10,000 to $14,000 per acre.
“I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen here,” says Sullivan. “It’s still mind-boggling to me that they are doing what they are doing. What I didn’t realize is that they have plentiful water – that’s a real advantage.”
Sullivan says he doesn’t see the Brazilian farmer as a threat to U.S. agriculture. “However, I do think they are one helluva tough competitor,” he says. “You’d better not think these boys are backwards down here. They’re not.”
John Rigdon, a corn and soybean farmer in Maryland, says Brazil is only now touching its potential. “There’s still a lot more that can come out of Brazil, especially from a value-added standpoint,” he says. “Brazil can be a companion, collaborator and competitor all at once. They have massive land resources and cheaper labor compared to us. And with today’s electronic advancements they can catch up to us technologically so much quicker than they could 50 years ago. They could possibly leap frog the U.S. in precision and data management.”
If there was one uniform complaint we heard from Brazilians, it was taxes. Most of the local farmers complained that equipment and farm supplies cost a fourth more than in nearby countries due to taxes.
Brazilian farmers are also challenged by tighter government controls, Rigdon notes. “Their financial infrastructure for loans is much more restrictive than ours, and interest rates are too high,” he adds. “It seems a lot of the money is in the hands of a very few. It’s hard to start farming on any scale in the U.S., but here it seems it would be even more difficult.”
Sullivan agrees. They were pretty modern compared to what we expected,” he says. “The only thing they need is money. If they can’t get it from their own government, then China or Japan or corporate investors will provide it.”
Dan Duval, a farmer and precision dealer in Green Valley, Ill., noted that Brazil is a young country full of optimism but frustrated by infrastructure. “They have vast resources and they seem to have a long-term plan,” he says. “They seem more focused on sustainability than we are. We came to appreciate conservation much later in the history of our production, and here they have embraced it more quickly.”
About three-fourths of Brazil’s soybeans are planted to no-till, a fact we learned earlier in the tour when we met with the “pioneer” of Brazilian no-till, Herbert Bartz.
Adopting new ideas seemed to be easier for the Brazilians, notes Sandy Duval, Dan’s wife and a USDA researcher at the Peoria-based lab. “Sometimes American farmers suffer from peer pressure, and I don’t see that in Brazilian farmers,” she says. “They don’t do things just because the earlier generation did them.”
Many of our participants agreed: the Brazilians had a lot in common with their American counterparts.
“Neither of us have any influence on prices, what we pay for inputs, or what the weather gives us,” says Sandy Duval. “Beyond where and what we farm, the passion of the Brazilian and American farmer is the same. We really have more in common than you think.”
Randy Rosengren, a farmer from Ottawa, Ill., agrees. “I was surprised at the similarities – their struggles are so close to ours,” he says. “They struggle with risk management, USDA crop reports and the board of trade as much as we do.”