Crossing the Globe for Hands-On Education in Brazilian Agriculture
About a year ago, former Farm Credit Midsouth intern—and current member—Jenna Martin ran across an ad on social media advertising a nearly two-week-long Brazil farmland tour to be held in January of 2020. After some debate on whether or not to go alone, her dad, Dennis, with whom she farms in Hickory Ridge, decided to join her on the adventure.
The trip was arranged by Commstock Investments in Royal, Iowa, an agriculture risk-management firm and co-operated with Genesis Investimentos, which advises American investors on farmland investments in Brazil. The company’s chairman, David Kruse, has been involved in commodity brokerage since the mid-1980s and is a fourth generation farmer. His wife, son, and daughter-in-law (who was born and raised on a family farm in Brazil) traveled with the group along with about 15 others from across the United States.
Jenna describes the experience as fascinating. We wanted to know more about this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we asked her to share a bit about her travels, what she learned and how Brazilian agriculture compares to what she knows back home in Arkansas.
After arriving in Brasilia, the capitol of Brazil, the group toured the city for a few days before traveling to the countryside. They received a primer on Brazilian agriculture from the USDA Ag Attaché with the Office of Ag Affairs so they might understand more about the country’s agriculture before experiencing it hands-on.
Brazil has two seasons: wet and dry. Being January, it was the wet season, which was perfect timing as soybeans were being cut and a second crop was being planted. The weather was pretty humid, so it was a good precursor to our own Arkansas summer.
The challenges Brazilian producers face are similar to ours with the biggest being drought, pest resistance, use of biotechnology, and multinational companies such as Cargill and JBS. One advantage the country has is in domestic corn usage. The majority of corn planted is used domestically for ethanol plants since most of the vehicles in Brazil run on ethanol. Producers mentioned they were receiving $5/bushel for their corn for ethanol use.
The first farm visited, after quite the scenic bus ride, was located in the state of Minas Gerais in Southeastern Brazil. There were young beans, beans that were soon to be harvested, and cotton being planted. The colors contrasted beautifully with the dark red, volcanic-type soil.
The owner was like many who came to Brazil; young and settling in an area in the late 1970s after buying ground for $1/acre and clearing the land. The 11,400-acre farm consisted of coffee, dairy (34th largest in Brazil), soybeans, corn, and a seed processing facility.
“I will say, perhaps what fascinated me the most about agriculture in Brazil was learning about coffee production,” Jenna noted. “The family hires 200 additional temporary employees to help harvest their 1,400 acres of coffee. The cost per acre is $4,000 with annual maintenance adding an additional $2,500/acre annually; and, the first harvest is not until three post planting.”
Interesting Brazilian Fact: Instead of bushels per acre, they use “sacks per hectare” with a sack representing different weights per commodity. For example, one sack of soybeans is equal to 2.2 bushels or 132 pounds.
The equipment on the farm consisted of John Deere and local brands. John Deere is heavily invested in Brazil with the factories being in the southernmost part of the country. Unlike back in the Delta, it was no-till, so most farms consisted of sprayers, planters, tractors and combines.
“I’ll be honest,” Jenna said, “If you asked me prior to the trip how I pictured Brazilian ag, I would have said old-fashioned with outdated equipment and technology and with the infrastructure causing trucks to stay on the roads for weeks at a time.” In reality, all operations were self-contained and able to function right on site, which meant not all trucks are headed straight to port. Their year is very fast paced with the country now trying triple crop (and we thought double was a lot!) This actually made the Martins fear for U.S. agriculture with production levels getting higher in Brazil because of numerous rotations per year, the right amount of rainfall (usually around 80 inches per year), and the potential investment in railroad systems.
Jenna’s favorite state was Mato Grosso, the hub of the soybean production in Brazil with around 25 million acres grown. The operations were massive, a 50,000, 500,000, and even a 1.2 million acre farm (the largest in Brazil). The group was able to see what it takes to manage a farm on this scale. Here they separate acreage into units of 50,000 acres and within that “group” it would have managers, its own agronomist and accountants. Everything needed was within each unit. Jenna and Dennis rode in a combine during soybean harvest, and remarked how odd it was to see a planter planting cotton in the same field right behind the combine. The wet season allows for planting season to still have enough moisture, so even if they received an inch of rain overnight, with their soil type and the top soil going nearly 10 feet below, they could easily be cutting beans again the next afternoon. Grain carts were not common, but grain tanks were seen on some operations with limited trucks. Because of this, the combine would cut halfway up the field then turn back toward the trucks, unload, and race back to the spot where it left off and continue to cut. Hopper bottom trucks were not seen; only cab over trucks with a second trailer pulled behind it.
Two-thirds of Brazil is protected forest area. Farmers are required to put 20 percent of their operations in reserves (trees). For example, the 1.2 million acre farm visited would not actually be farming the full 1.2 million, rather he would have around 250,000 acres in reserves. Many operations chose to have the reserves in low bottom ground or ground less suitable for production.
What was also wild was that everything was ran on wood, no natural gas! Eucalyptus trees with a life cycle of six years are being planted in areas for the primary purpose of the use of energy. The wood was used to operate onsite grain drying, ethanol plants, and incentives are being put in place for farmers to plant the trees for renewable energy sources.
The 1.2 million acre farm with 37 different sites (Grupo Bom Futuro) was one of the top three largest farming groups in the country. The privately owned group was purchased in 2010 and has diversified into cotton ginning, aquaculture, energy, seed and livestock. After starting with only 500 acres, it is now the largest farming company in Brazil.
A few things about this operation:
- 700,000 acres of soybeans
- 425,000 acres of cotton
- 200,000 acres of corn and pasture
- 30 combines on one unit
- 400 workers in one unit
“The group had 40 percent of the one 50,000 acre unit we visited rented, with rent estimated around $80/acre,” Jenna explained. “What was interesting was the landowners only demanded rent on one crop per year, even though at least two crops were put on the land annually. We were lucky to witness soybean harvest in January while we were there. There were about seven combines harvesting beans in the field we visited, covering around 3,000 acres per day.“
More Familiar Territory
The farm that seemed most relatable to the Martins was a smaller 2,800-acre farm operated by a father and two brothers. The family nearly went broke several times but slowly adopted more technology and fought weather trends along with limited storage. The farm was actually cash flowed, which was unusual to hear since in the U.S. it is common practice to work with lenders (like Farm Credit Midsouth.) The growers usually depend on cash flow, use retailers or large ag companies for financing, or utilize some globally familiar lenders.
Jenna has had several friends wanting to know how the yields were looking, and each farm site echoed the same thing: record yields with favorable harvest conditions. Many were averaging around 65-70 bu/ac. The group asked about input costs to see how they compared, and this particular family’s response was comical with some truth behind it. They said, “Wonder if we should tell them the truth? When we asked when visiting the U.S., they gave us the numbers, we converted it to ours, but said that it just couldn’t be right, the people in the U.S. aren’t making any money.”
“Sounds about right,” she notes. The family purchased the almost 3,000 acres for around $167/acre, and that land is now valued around $4,000/acre. Compared to the mega farms, this operation had nine full-time employees, nine temporary, three combines, two planters, one fertilizer spreader, and one spray rig.
One of the shops housed a huge cooled room where they stored their seed. The corn planted was 130- to 140-day corn and the maturity group for their beans was 7.8 – 8.2.
Labor laws. Employees could work no more than 10 hours a day and could only work three out of four Sundays a month, otherwise the operation would be fined. This leaves for a lot of shiftwork.
The Martins learned a great deal from their hands-on experience in Brazilian agriculture. Their main takeaways? The massive storage and modernized technology with longer, warmer seasons definitely gives their ag potential to thrive. They were surprised at the diversification: cotton, corn, beans, coffee, dairy cattle, and beef cattle. It will be interesting to follow how sustainable the double and triple crop rotations will be on the soil. Will the ground be depleted? Another realization is that Brazil only has around 19,000 miles of railroad track, unlike the U.S. with 137,000 miles of track. If Brazil were to obtain an efficient railroad system, it would likely hurt U.S. producers. And lastly, it is of note that China has been steadily investing in Brazil. There were several Chinese-owned grain facilities in the bigger cities.
The Martins—Dennis, Jennifer and Jenna—farm rice, beans and corn on 2,400 acres in Cross, Woodruff and Jackson Counties. After graduating from East Arkansas Community College, Jenna pursued a degree in Agribusiness with a minor in Strategic Communications at Arkansas State University graduating in May, 2019. She returned to the family farm and farms around 460 acres in Cross County.
Special thanks to Jenna for sharing a window to this rare experience. We know their continuing education on a global scale serves to strengthen the family’s already extraordinary commitment to promoting Arkansas agriculture.