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To grow cotton, U.S. farmer goes south way, way south

Funny how a single, random event can sometimes change a life forever. If floodwaters had not risen over Brian Willott's family farm in Missouri in June of 1993, he might be there today, managing corn and soybean production.

Instead, he is learning a new language and a new culture, and is experiencing firsthand the sometime harsh realities of producing cotton and soybeans in Bahia, Brazil.

Willott grew up honing his agricultural skill and learning patience on his family's flood-prone, bottomland fields around St. Peters, Mo. When he graduated from college in May 1993, his plan was to return to the farm to carve out a living. But that spring, floodwaters rose twice after planting, the last leaving him with nothing to do that summer. He went to work as a research associate for the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, in Columbia, Mo., where he had worked while in school. He stayed with FAPRI for 10 years and earned a masters degree.

In June 2003, a group of farmer/investors approached him about starting a coffee production enterprise in Brazil. Unmarried, adventurous and more than a little concerned about Congress' seemingly low priority for funding FAPRI, Willott accepted the deal, and struck out a month later for South America.

“I realized that if I stayed at FAPRI, I needed a PhD to keep advancing, or I could come do this. Either way, I had to pay some dues for four to five years. But I always wanted to farm and I realized that if I was ever going to do it, this was my shot.”

Willott encountered a few early bumps in the road. Although he and his investors had put together a business plan to produce coffee, “when I got here, coffee prices were low. The group decided to change the investment plan to produce cotton and/or soybeans. Willott spent the next year “just looking around, trying to learn the language and find some land with a good deed.”

Willott would end up in the city of Barreiras, the gateway to the agricultural region of western Bahia. Barreiras, a fast-growing city of 140,000 people, with a crush plant and a dozen or so cotton brokers, also has a large concentration of U.S. cotton farmers.

A second bump in the road was high land prices. Willott knew from his research that land values in Brazil had bottomed out. But the lure of cheap land had attracted many American investors apparently willing to bid prices back up.

Many of them, apparently unaware that land could be had dirt cheap, paid as much as 200 sacks of soybeans, or around $800 per acre, for land that Willott said is closer in value to $400 an acre. A sack is equivalent to 132 pounds of soybeans, which at the time of this writing was worth about $10.

“Coming from a research background, one thing that bothers me is that no one tells the truth about this place,” Willott said. “About half the people want to tell you how great it is, how land is cheaper, labor is cheap, people are nice and you can make lots of money. Some of that is true. Land is cheaper here. But it's not like land in the Mississippi Delta. This soil doesn't have much fertility.”

The solution for Willott is to rent land, which he is able to do for about 5 sacks per acre, or $20, a fraction of the cost to purchase the land. “If I could rent for 2.5 percent of the value, I'm better off. A lot of producers think something is a great deal because it's cheaper than land in Iowa. But I tell you, this ain't Iowa.”

Indeed it isn't. Life here may not necessary be better or worse than in America, but it sure is different. Willott lives in the city, his farm office in one room of a rented house. Living on the farm would have been difficult, with neither cell phone coverage nor rural mail delivery.

On one hand, Bahia soils can produce some high-quality and high-yielding cotton, with proper fertility. In fact, Willott's cotton yields approached 3 bales per acre this year. But he had to spray a fungicide four times and sprayed up to 25 times for insects.

Willott plants conventional cotton, what the local farmers refer to as legal cotton. They're straight out of another era by American standards — DP 90, Opal and ST 474. Bt cotton has been approved for planting for the 2006-07 season, but Willott's seed company won't sell him a bag of Bt seed unless he purchases an accompanying bag of conventional seed — which must be a variety offered by the seed company. He's mulling the offer.

Willott says some farmers still plant Bt cotton illegally, claiming it's cheaper to pay the fine than take the loss from worms. “But we keep it legal.”

Willott winds up cotton planting each year around Christmas, when temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees. There is always plenty of rain during the growing season, but often, there's too much. When it stops, producers crank up their harvesters, and often enjoy a long, open harvest season.

Willott produced a lot of high-quality (31-2) cotton this season, but an unfavorable real-to-dollar exchange rate has kept him and other high-quality producers out of the export market. Local buyers for the domestic market have used the resulting glut of cotton to their advantage, refusing to pay any more for high quality than they do for low quality.

Willott sold some cotton at harvest “to get expenses behind me. The rest of it I'm going to store. People just say they're not going to pay the premium for high quality. It hurts to not have a subsidy program, where you can put cotton under loan and draw what you actually produce. I worked all year to make quality cotton, now everybody tells me they want junk.”

“Every day,” Willott says when asked how often he deals with poor road conditions in Brazil. “In this region, there is one artery to drain of all our soybeans, corn, cotton, coffee and papaya.”

Last year, truck drivers barricaded the road to bring attention to the poor conditions. Then farmers barricaded it because they were upset about low prices.

Brazilians are happy to have Americans in the region, even if it's mostly for their money, Willott says.

“A lot of Brazilian farmers have been in crisis and there are a lot of Brazilian farmers who want to rent me their land or who are looking for employment.”

Willott and his investors knew they would encounter problems adjusting to a different culture and growing conditions, one reason why they're growing the business slowly. Still, Willott sounds like a farmer who has made up his mind to make a go of it. His Portuguese is improving to the point where his friends compliment him. He's fond of the country's natural, untamed beauty.

“I would say my experience here has been positive. Learning the language was tough, then learning the labor laws and the tax laws. But there isn't any other way to do it than to immerse yourself in it. You have to pay your dues.”

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