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Column: Brazil’s farmers set sights on expansion

A giant relief map of the state of Mato Grosso hangs in the airport in Cuiaba, Brazil. It shows large tracts of land north of Cuiaba and between Cuiaba and Mato Grosso So Sul that have been cleared for soybeans, cotton and other crops.

But it also pictures vast areas of northern and eastern Mato Grosso that have yet to be cleared, land covered with grasses and scrub trees that grow to 10 or 12 feet in height because of the region’s Cerrados or savannah climate.

Visitors hear stories of Brazilian farmers hooking a chain between two tractors and clearing land. When you drive past one of the few remaining natural areas southeast of Cuiaba, it’s easy to imagine farmers pulling up trees one day and planting soybeans the next.

That’s not the whole story. Until lime deposits were discovered in central Brazil in the 1970s, few crops could be grown on the highly acidic Cerrados soils. Farmers generally have to grow two years of upland rice and apply generous amounts of phosphates and potash to make the land productive.

The lime deposits and increasingly crowded conditions in southern Brazil sparked a migration from the South into Mato Grosso, Goias and Minas Gerais. That and soybean varieties specifically adapted for the tropical climate. The first soybeans were grown in Mato Grosso in 1978. Now Mato Grosso and other center west states account for 46 percent of Brazil’s soybeans, or the “yellow gold” of the Cerrados, as some call it.

The Cerrados contains 520 million acres or about one-fourth of Brazil’s land mass. Of those, about 50 million acres are planted in row crops. Agronomists estimate another 250 million acres could be used for modern mechanized agriculture.

The state of Mato Grosso has become Brazil’s largest producing soybean state, growing about 13.3 million acres this season. Agronomists with Foundation Mato Grosso, a private development organization, say farmers hope to double that in the next five years. Mato Grosso also produces 88 percent of Brazil’s cotton. Growers hope to expand cotton acres as well – if, they say, the United States reduces its subsidies.

Any animosity Brazilian farmers hold for their U.S. counterparts was not evident on a recent trip to Mato Grosso. (At one stop, a Brazilian TV reporter asked a Brazilian chemical company rep why the Brazilians were helping a group of Valent USA technicians and customers learn to deal with soybean rust.)

The biggest problem Brazilian farmers face – other than the erosion in the value of their currency – is the transportation system. Most of the soybeans and cotton grown in Mato Grosso have to be trucked 1,000 to 1,300 miles over two lane roads.

Mato Grosso’s governor, Blairo Maggi, who happens to be the country’s largest soybean producer, is trying to remedy that. But, unlike its farmers, government projects move slowly in Brazil. That may be U.S. farmers’ best hope for slowing the Brazilian juggernaut for now.

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