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Brazil farming advanced by pioneers

Brazil is a lot like America's early frontier — a little rough around the edges, superstitious and still touting a pioneer spirit. It's America without the fine-tooth comb of government in its hair.

Sometimes, this is a good thing. Sometimes, it's not.

The government's laissez faire approach — intentional or otherwise — hasn't hurt soybean farmer Ivo Carlos Arnt Filho. His Hotel Tagy sits at the intersection of two wide cobblestone streets in Tibagi City, a small town in the hills of Parana, a state in southern Brazil. It's a clean and modern tourist stop, with an excellent buffet lunch.

The street and sidewalk in front of the hotel are covered in a fine red dust squeezed from between the stones and ground into powder by heavy tractors which regularly run up and down the street.

A pet store down the road looks to be a profitable venture — its neat shelves and spongy wooden floors are reminiscent of pre-Wal-Mart rural America. If agricultural input in Tibagi City sell as cheaply as everyday goods in the pet store, Brazilian farmers must be doing well. The store sells a four-pack of AA Eveready batteries for two reals, about 50 cents. Reliability is another matter. The batteries last all of three hours.

Across the street from the pet store, three Brazilian ladies decked out in pink, green and purple, sip tea on the front porch of a home painted sky blue and enjoy a Wednesday afternoon in early March. It's just after lunch and getting warmer by the minute.

Filho runs agriculture and reforesting ventures on his family's 12,000-hectare homeplace, while a sister manages the family's tourism enterprises. A nearby canyon is a well-known tourist destination, and attracts a steady flow of visitors to the hotel and its small cafe. A brother runs the family's cattle business.

Filho doesn't have a lot of time to talk this day, but he is a cordial host and treats a large group of touring agricultural journalists to lunch. He is an independent farmer doing well financially.

He produces 4,000 hectares of corn and soybeans in a 2-1 rotation program. “Rotation of crops is important here in Brazil. The pressure of diseases and bugs is greater because of the climate.”

One disease is an especially efficient killer. Asian soybean rust entered the region three years ago, and farmers have come to know its fearsome potential for destruction. It can sweep through entire fields of soybeans in a matter of days, taking every bean in sight.

“When you see the first lesion, you have seen the tip of the iceberg,” said Roberto Moretzsohn de Castro, with Syngenta, Brazil. “In the north, under excellent conditions, the disease can develop in nine days. In the south (where temperatures are milder), about a month.”

Preventive fungicide applications for Asian soybean rust have become a standard practice for Filho, like tourists to his town smoothing on sun block to prevent a burn. “I don't know of any farmer who has not made a preventive spray for Asian soybean rust this year,” he said.

Brazil's Agriculture Ministry apparently doesn't have the resources, or perhaps the inclination, to implement a monitoring program that would allow Brazilian soybean farmers like Filho to follow the movement of the disease across the country, and help them schedule their preventive sprays. But local farmer cooperatives, chemical companies, independent research facilities and individual growers have taken up the slack, implementing their own monitoring programs. So far, this season, the combination of fungicides and drought in Parana has kept the disease from causing economic damage.

Despite the added cost of a preventive fungicide, soybeans are still a profitable venture for Filho. His breakeven price for soybeans is about $10 per sack — $4.54 per bushel. A sack is a unit of measurement for Brazilian farmers equal to about 60 kilograms or 2.2 bushels.

Brazil producers have some advantages in cost of production; the most obvious is access to a cheap labor force. In addition, transgenic crops are currently forbidden in Parana, which means they pay no technology fees, and many soybean producers are able to save seed for replanting.

Filho markets directly to the local feed industry through Brazil's Bunge and Cargill facilities, around 60 miles from his farm. Some soybeans are transported to Japan, sold for a 15 percent premium as a non-GMO crop. Oats and corn are sold locally to Pepsico.

Brazilian soybean producers have mixed feelings about the impact of U.S. farm subsidies on their profitability. (Their Agricultural Ministry has said that it will ask the World Trade Organization for a probe of U.S. soybean subsidies, although it hasn't said that it will file a case. In 2004, WTO agreed with Brazil's complaint that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal.)

“We don't have time to think about subsidies. We have work to do,” said Dusi Demostenes, secretary director of Coopagricola, a cooperative in Ponta Grossa.

When pressed further, some frustration surfaces. “We don't have subsidies or crop insurance against soybean rust either. A Brazilian subsidy is a prayer.”

But he has a sense of humor about it, too. “We urge that you either stop your subsidies or teach our government how to do them.”

Armin Kliewer, who farms with his son Rubens, is more vocal. The Kliewers farm in Parana and Bahia and 10 years ago expanded their farming operation to the “new frontier” of Mato Grosso. They farm over 8,000 hectares in the three states.

In Mato Grosso, soybeans and grain must be transported 2,000 kilometers to the nearest port. The cost of transportation is about $2 per bushel, according to Kliewer. This cost is mostly offset by less money spent on disease and insects in the region.

U.S. subsidies, Kliewer said, “are unjust. You Americans are the big guys with all the advantages on your side and you still have subsidies. We are a tiny country economically and we are struggling to compete with you. How long will the American people allow its government to maintain the subsidies for such a small part of your population?”

Kliewer believes that subsidies will make U.S. farmers soft. “If you continue to maintain your subsidies, your farmers eventually will not try to improve productivity. There will come a time when you are crippled by your subsidies.

“In Mato Grosso, we don't have subsidies and to compete with growers down south who have high yields, we have to research for new varieties and new ways to control disease to produce the yields we need.”

Brazil's government does provide some assistance for its small farmers, providing loans and helping with purchasing equipment. The size of farm at which these benefits kick in is unclear, however.

For many small farms in southern Brazil, superstitions rule the working class, while landowner-farmers often struggle to get by. In Ponta Grossa County, the farm road to Marco Palmeria Chechia's farm is not much wider than a footpath in places. It winds through and around the hills and past bright aqua- and peach-colored homes.

This dirt and gravel road is the only way in or out for grain and oilseed haulers moving the gathered crops off the farm. The underbrush intrudes on both sides, sometimes meeting in the middle, which undoubtedly gives Chechia's farm hands the willies.

This is because Curupira, the legendary, mystical wild child of the jungle, with pointed ears and green teeth, lurks in these woods. And he doesn't like farmers much.

His most interesting feature are his feet, which point backwards, so an enemy who is tracking him will go the wrong way, and an enemy who is fleeing will run right to him. He is Brazil's defender of nature and ecology — hardly known in megacities like Sau Paulo — and a natural enemy of farmers and hunters.

One of Chechia's farmhands has attached a cow's skull painted bright red to a fence post at the farm gate to frighten away Curupira. For Chechia, the artifact has no meaning. But he notes that no farmhands are missing, so it must be working.

Chechia, who's father purchased the farmland for his children a generation ago, has no grain storage facilities, so grain and soybeans must be moved quickly from the field to the main highway. His narrow farm road is a bottleneck.

He would like to improve and widen the road, but property owners along the road can't be convinced to sell small strips of their property. Apparently, the government doesn't want to get involved. Perhaps Curipuri has gotten to them. Either way, it seems of little consequence to Chechia. He makes do.

Last year, the no-till producer had some forewarning that Asian rust was headed his way and set up several research plots for treatment on his own. Syngenta provided materials, as well as a small plot sprayer. He sprayed preventively and curatively and did not spray a check plot.

The loss in curative plots was about 3 percent of yield, there was no loss in the preventive plot and losses in the check plot were higher than 70 percent. So far this year, he hasn't seen Asian rust, although a monitoring program indicates that disease spores are about a mile away and closing in.

If there are government agriculture research and outreach people in southern Brazil, they are nowhere to be found. In Parana, farmers affiliated with southern Brazil's three large cooperatives pay $4 per hectare to run an impressive research station in Parana called Fundacao ABC.

The facility's director, Olavo Correa da Silva, has condensed his philosophy for controlling Asian rust into one cryptic sentence, which not surprisingly said a lot about Brazil's approach to agriculture.

During a slide show presentation, he stops to discuss the image of a Brazilian soybean farmer using two horses to pull a fungicide rig through a field. He waits until the murmurs subside before speaking.

“This farmer's neighbor has all modern equipment, but did not make a timely application of a fungicide for rust. The farmer with the horses did. Guess which one did not have a yield loss — the one who has horses pulling his rig. In Brazil, we say that knowledge is more important than technology.”

Not something you would hear in North America, where technology is necessary to offset the lack of a cheap labor alternative. But in Brazil, the pioneer spirit still lives. North America's problems seem far into the future.


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