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Corn+Soybean Digest

The Bin Is Half Empty

Or is it half full? That will depend on the way you look at it, of course.

Brazil is a nation as large as our 48 contiguous states, a continent-sized territory just like the U.S. But you'll find soybeans in Rio Grande do Sul, on the southernmost border with Uruguay, and in the northernmost state of Roraima, bordering Venezuela.

Go west to Rondonia or east to Bahia and you see vast expanses of soybean fields. Sao Paulo, in the southeast, is the world's largest producer of sugarcane and oranges, but you'll also find soybeans there, just as you'll see them in most other states. It's like planting beans from the Carolinas all the way to California.

And in many regions soybean farming is a 12-month job. From Minas Gerais to the north, northeast or Center-West, the year has two seasons, wet and dry, and temperatures are mostly in the 90s for 12 months.

Mato Grosso, the top soybean producer, has the largest number of irrigation pivots in the country, used for production during the dry winter months. Many producers in that state plant early season soybeans in September, harvest them by early January and plant a second round to be harvested by late April, aside from their winter production. Did anyone say vacation? Yes, they do find time for that, too.

But the most important difference in vision is in the financial area. The vital word for a Brazilian producer is “cambio,” or exchange rate, and how it affects his daily life. In 2004, a strong U.S. dollar made imported inputs more expensive, but it also meant a higher income from exported beans.

By 2005 input prices remained the same in Reals, the local currency, but the dollar lost value against the Real, world market prices fell and producers despaired. In other words it's a double financial blow — fewer dollars for your beans, fewer Reals for your income in dollars. And for the 2005-06 harvest many producers were pressured on a third front: Lack of credit lines, leading to a drastic reduction in the use of technology on the fields.

Brazilian farmers have mixed feelings when they talk of government subsidies. Many will say American and European farmers have an unfair advantage, and they also believe a non-subsidized ag economy leads to long-term benefits. But earlier this season most Brazilian farmers would have loved to see at least some financial assistance, in the form of special low-rate credit lines.

Nevertheless, in our weekly contacts with producers from different Brazilian regions, they basically say the same thing: Why does the government keep the policy of a very high prime interest rate, which leads to a strong local currency against the dollar? High interest rates attract foreign investments, (i.e., an increased offer of dollars) and the exchange rate goes down. Reduce the local prime rate, dollars leave, and the exchange rate goes up.

Every morning, Brazilian farmers check the CBOT and the dollar exchange rate on the Web or with their local input suppliers, then check the day's local price with Cargill, Bunge or ADM. At night they watch the news and sigh as they see the dollar value barely move up or down a few points, almost stagnated.

As producer Jose Edgard of Tocantins stresses, “Thanks to its inaction, the government may be slowly killing the chicken that lays the gold egg of trade surplus.” In Mato Grosso, while attending a conference with the presence of a Chicago trade group, producer Luiz Carlos Scapucin comments: “First too much rain, now too much dry weather. Maybe this way prices will finally go up.” Naturally, he doesn't expect any help coming from Brasilia, the nation's capital.

When we ask producers about the government's ag policy, most will retort with another question: “What policy?” Well, right now the official stance in Brasilia is to say the total acreage planted with soybeans this harvest will be 7% smaller than in the 2004-05 season, but the total tonnage should be actually higher. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates 59 million tons, whereas input suppliers believe the total will not be higher than 54 million. The reason for such official optimism is simple: This is a presidential election year.

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