E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


U.S. farmers put down roots in Brazilian soil

(Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

NY Times, 12/01/02: LUÍS EDUARDO MAGALHÃES, Brazil — More than a century after his ancestors began farming in the Midwestern United States, Dan Carroll's best hope of bringing his son into the family business is to buy land in the savannas of Brazil.

Two months ago Mr. Carroll, of Carthage, Ill., bought a soybean farm on the outskirts of this dusty town of pickup trucks and barbecue restaurants 350 miles northeast of Brasília. He joined more than a dozen other Americans who have recently begun farming here.

"I have no doubt that Brazil is the future of global agriculture and I want my son to be able to be part of that," Mr. Carroll, 46, said in an interview. "It's prohibitively expensive for him to buy land in the States right now."

Recent arrivals like Mr. Carroll and his son, John, have brought the number of American farmers in Brazil to more than 200, including a small Mennonite community, according to AgBrazil, a company in Columbia, Mo., that brokers Brazilian land deals.

Their numbers are expected to grow as Brazil's agricultural frontier expands. The recent decline of Brazil's currency, the real, weakened much of the economy but added value to export commodities, especially soybeans, in the last two years.

Brazil's export surge is causing a sharp increase in the soybean crop across the cerrado, a vast region of grasslands and savannas. Brazil has about four times as much available farmland as the United States has, largely because of improvements in soil fertility and the development of soybeans suitable to the tropics.

The expansion of Brazil's agricultural frontier in the last two years is roughly equal to Iowa's entire soybean acreage, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's Brazil report, which was published in November.

"The guys who come down here now are awestruck," said Thomas Shanks, a farmer from upstate New York who has been growing soybeans and corn in Brazil for the last four years.

Mr. Shanks said he received phone calls from American farmers nearly every day who were interested in buying farmland in Brazil.

Most are lured by relatively cheap land. Prices vary but cleared land in western Bahia, the epicenter of the soybean boom, can be bought for about $700 an acre compared with $3,850 in Illinois. There are few restrictions on foreign ownership of land in Brazil.

"It's like getting a chance to open the Midwest to farming again," said Philip F. Warnken, the president and chief executive of AgBrazil, which conducts tours to the region each year. Farmers from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Canada have also taken part in his tours.

Luís Eduardo Magalhães has grown from a few hundred homes around a gas station on the side of a highway a decade ago, into a community of about 35,000 people. Sensing the importance of attracting investment, the town's businesses spearheaded a movement to break away from the nearby city of Barreiras. They succeeded two years ago and renamed the town.

"I don't care if they are Americans, Chinese, Africans, Argentines," Oziel Oliveira, the town's first mayor, said over breakfast at his new two-story home. "Anyone who wants to come here is welcome."

He and his wife, Jusmari Oliveira, a state legislator, recently made a trip to the United States to speak with Americans considering farming around the town.

Luís Eduardo has grown quickly, drawing thousands of migrants to work as farmhands. Their district of town, made up of exposed cinder- block homes and bars selling shots of sugar-cane rum, is called Iraq because of the lawlessness there.

"Rent and just everything else is too expensive now," said Edson Carvalho, a migrant who moved to Luís Eduardo from a poorer part of the state of Bahia.

Unlike the laborers who live in Iraq, almost everyone who owns a business or farm descends from European or Japanese immigrants who settled decades ago in southern Brazil. The first commercial farmers came nearly 20 years ago from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Vilson Kublik, the manager of a bustling John Deere dealership here, said the level of development in Luís Eduardo was good compared with the rest of Brazil. "If they have a farm vehicle in United States, we'll sell the same one here," he said.

In addition, American multinationals like Cargill and Bunge operate large soybean crushing plants here.

Despite similarities with the United States, however, the integration of American farmers is not without its problems. Few farmers speak fluent Portuguese, preferring to have bilingual managers, and most Americans live only part of the year in Brazil.

In addition, while the land may be cheap, transportation costs are not. Although rail and river projects are under way, most farmers need to send their crops to ports in trucks that barrel down pockmarked highways or dirt roads.

Still, the sheer availability of land appears to be on the side of farmers in Brazil, which is larger than the contiguous 48 American states. While it is second to the United States in soybean production, Brazil's output is growing faster. It is expected to produce a record 49 million tons of soybeans this harvest, up 13 percent from last year.

To the surprise of some Americans, the rapid expansion of Brazilian agriculture is rooted in policies pursued by the United States to encourage meat production overseas, partly to stimulate American soybean exports. Soybeans, which are high in protein, are often used to feed chickens and pigs.

American researchers helped Brazil in the 1970's to improve soils in the cerrado, helping transform what was once considered an inhospitable wasteland into what are now seemingly endless plains of farms.

That assistance, said Richard A. Levins, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, has boomeranged, in a "jolt to our king-of-the-hill mentality."