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Brazil, a big corn and soybean belt

The ease of traveling within the United States has always impressed me since the first time I set foot in the Midwest, 13 years ago. Not only because of the mind-blowing transportation infrastructure (which looks even more amazing to my Brazilian eyes, very used to the logistical problems and challenges we have here), but also because doing a crop tour, for example, is painless, since most of the corn and soybean production is concentrated in the Midwest.

That’s why I can’t help a somewhat condescending smile when some American or other foreigner suggests a crop tour in Brazil’s corn and soybean belt. Of course we have crop tours – and very good ones. But driving, for example, from Mato Grosso to Paraná, Brazil’s top producing states, is very challenging, to say the least. Not only because we have bad and dangerous roads (despite all the improvements we’ve seen in the last few years), but also because they are very different states, with more than one thousand miles between them.

Corn and soybean belt? There is no such thing in Brazil, since farms are spread across the country, from the border with Uruguay and Argentina, in the South, to the outskirts of the Amazon forest, in the North (yes, outskirts– I’ll write more about the Amazon in a future column). And let’s not forget “Matopiba”, Brazil’s agricultural new frontier, in the Northeast, which sits 1.5 thousand miles from Mato Grosso do Sul, at the border with Paraguay and Bolivia, in western Brazil.

A big farm
Now you might be asking yourself about growing conditions. If Brazil is like a big farm and grows corn and soybeans almost everywhere, it probably has good soils and favorable weather conditions in all those regions, right? Not exactly.

Most of us, Brazilians, have grown up believing in a boastful statement which was presumably written in 1500, in a letter sent by the Portuguese navigators who discovered Brazil to their King Manuel I, detailing the things they had seen in the new land. We grow up believing that they wrote something like “everything that is planted here thrives without much effort”.

The first mistake is that the letter does not say that. It would be impossible, because the letter was written on May 1st (only nine days after the Portuguese arrived) and because indigenous people who lived where the navigators first arrived did not use to farm (they were collectors).

“Inferno”
The second mistake is the statement itself. It is a lot of work to grow crops here. In many parts of Brazil, soils are really poor and weather conditions are tricky. In the Center-West region, where about half of Brazil’s corn and soybean production comes from, farmers are able to start planting soybeans only when the spring rains arrive, in October, after a very dry and hot winter, when temperatures easily reach 100ºF. People even joke about that, saying that “inverno” (winter) is more like “inferno” (hell). When rains arrive later than normal, which was the case this season, the soybean crop is delayed and so is the second corn crop, planted right after the soybean harvest. Delays like that also happen in Paraná, but the soil moisture levels in that state are never as low as in Mato Grosso.

Fertilizers
Speaking of soils, farming is possible in Mato Grosso only because of seed varieties that have been developed especially for that region and because of the intensive use of fertilizers. In Paraná, a more traditional agricultural state, with better soils and weather, fertilizers represent 19% of the soybean operating cost of production. In Mato Grosso, they rise to 33% of the cost.

But Mato Grosso has its own advantages. One of them is being able to grow a second corn crop, after the soybean harvest, nearly everywhere in the state. Some parts of Paraná, on the other hand, have freezing temperatures from May to July, which prevents farmers from planting corn in the winter. Either way, getting to know the two states is worth all the challenges.

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