From the conversations that occur at the local coffee shops or local elevators, every farmer in rural America knows that our agricultural industry has changed and will continue to change in the future. 10 years ago, farmers never talked about another country affecting the commodity grain markets in the U.S. Now, as you sit around sipping on your cup of coffee, Brazil and Argentina are often mentioned. As one American farmer wonders why the grain markets are going down, another farmer chimes in and says it is because South America is predicted to have a very good crop. These changes in agriculture really interested me. I knew I wanted to find an opportunity to learn more about production agriculture in South America, particularly in Brazil.
My name is Matthew Dirksen, and I am currently doing an internship for Brazil Iowa Farms in the Bahia state of Brazil. This fall, I will be entering my senior year at Iowa State University majoring in Agricultural Business with a minor in Agronomy. I grew up on my family’s farm just outside of Danbury, Iowa. On the farm we grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle. Over the last year or two, I have become more and more interested in international production agriculture. Knowing that agricultural industries in Brazil are growing very rapidly in size and importance, I wanted to find a way to learn about and help with production agriculture in Brazil. I contacted the Kruse family, knowing of their involvement in Brazil agriculture, hoping that they had an opportunity for me to do an internship. David Kruse is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Brazil Iowa Farms, and David’s son Matthew is the Chief Operational Officer who oversees all the operations in Brazil. I was very excited to find out that Brazil Iowa Farms was willing to have me as an intern this summer.
Brazil Iowa Farms owns and operates farms that are located in the most western side of Bahia, Brazil. The farms are about 1.5 hours south of the town of Luis Eduardo Magalhaes. The company’s farms are basically in 3 chunks of land totaling over 22,000 acres. The farmland is divided into approximately 2/3 cotton and 1/3 soybeans, with some experimental corn acres. I was surprised to hear that the major crop is cotton and not soybeans. I now know that Bahia, and especially the western side of Bahia, is one of the best areas in the world to grow cotton. It has the optimal climate, daylight hours, altitude, and rainfall. Soybeans also grow well in this area and are a good rotation crop. Just like corn, cotton requires nitrogen, and soybeans are able to supply some of the nitrogen. The corn crop is relatively small, but offers some diversity and typically receives strong prices. The main reason for the lack of corn acres is low yields in this area, and thus the crop is not as profitable as cotton or soybeans.
The farming practices are somewhat different then what I grew up with on our northwest Iowa farm. The farm is run just like a business, with general managers, farm managers, office personnel, mechanics, and other farm workers. Labor is cheaper and more readily available than compared to the U.S. In the U.S., we like to replace labor with machinery or technology. Like one of my professors at Iowa State said, when he went away to college his dad just replaced him with a larger tractor. In Brazil they don’t have to replace labor for larger equipment. Instead of having one huge planter, sprayer, tractor, etc., they can have multiple smaller units and get more work done. For example, the largest tractor I have seen so far is a John Deere 8430. I find this to be very interesting because I would have thought with huge farms come huge equipment. Matthew Kruse shared another reason for the lack of large equipment in Brazil. He said it wouldn’t be a problem getting large equipment in Brazil; however, the technical and mechanical support is still fairly minimal for the large machinery. Overall, a large work force and many pieces of equipment are needed to successfully farm the land. Because of the large work force and the quantity of equipment needed, the total input costs are similar to the United States.
Like I mentioned above, another difference between Brazilian agriculture and American agriculture is the size. While some small local farmers remain, it is much easier to become large in Brazil. Vast amounts of land are available and fewer towns exist. The farms are not divided by a road every 1-2 miles, which allows large sections of land to be farmed together. The contiguousness of the farmland definitely makes farming more efficient because they don’t have to travel to multiple farm sites. For rotational purposes however, the large pieces of land are broken into smaller fields and planted to the different crops. These smaller fields can still be over 1000 acre fields. The terrain in this area is much like central Iowa, fairly flat with the occasional slight 3 mile long slope. Because of this slight slope and the huge amount of rain during the growing season, some farms have to have small drive over terraces to slow the water and reduce erosion. The soils in this area are very old, and the soil structure is well developed. This allows the fields to take on all the water and not flood.
Currently, it is a fairly slow time here on this farm. The soybean and corn harvest was finished about 2 weeks ago, and we are waiting for the cotton to be ready for harvest. This past season the region had some rain issues early in the season. The rain started later then normal causing the planting of corn and soybeans to be delayed. If the rain does not start on time the farmers have to plant the crop in the dust, which is unfavorable. Total rain this past growing season was less than normal, 48 inches, with most of the rain falling in March and April, somewhat after the corn and soybean yields are determined. Normal rain fall for the area is around 65 inches. Because of the rain issue, the corn and soybeans yields were average for the area this past season. Typically the corn yields are not as high as most areas of the U.S. cornbelt, but soybean yields are similar. Many factors play into the yields of the crops. Obviously weather has a huge impact. As Brazil does not experience a freeze during the winter months, more insect and weed pressure exist. Also, because of the large amount of rain, molds and funguses are a big issue. Controlling all of these pressures requires great management and can largely affect yield if not done properly. This year there were no major insect problems in the corn or soybeans on the Iowa Farms. However, a few farms in the area had some problems with “Mofo Branco” (Sclerotinia Sclerotiorum) in their soybeans. This is a omnivorous fungal plant pathogen that mainly affects reproductive structures.
This summer I plan on writing a few more articles from Brazil. I will be in Brazil until August 2, so I am going to try to write an article every 2-3 weeks for the website. The topics for my next article are still undetermined; however I will update you on the cotton harvest, talk about grain marketing options for this area, and input costs. I hope you enjoyed my first “Report from Brazil,” and I hope you check back in a few weeks to read my next report.