Brian Carlson, a Benton County farmer, was able to be part of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Brazil Market Study trip in 2020. Carlson said that he has wanted to visit Brazil for decades, so he applied to be part of the trip and was selected to be included. Part of the subsidized trip agreement with Farm Bureau is that each participant shares their experience with four groups upon their return. He said about 5 days after his return all air travel was shut down due to the COVID pandemic, and so was any opportunity to share his experience. He is just now getting to share his story with others after things have begun to open again.
The trip began in Manau a city of more than 2 million. Carlson explained that Brazil has surpassed the United States in soybean production.The ability of the Brazilian farmers to produce more is is due to the fact that they can produce 2 or 3 crops to the single crop of an Iowa farmer. The Brazilian farmer has more environmental restrictions than in the states, with more permits required and much more reporting, which was a surprise to Carlson.
One of the areas that is growing rapidly is the production of ethanol plants. Prior to making ethanol from corn, in Brazil they used to make it only from sugar cane. Now the production of ethanol has increased so much that there are plans to build more plants to increase their production. The country has no oil fields, so this is their source of fuel. One plant there plans to make the ethanol, using eucalyptus as fuel to run the plant, and then ship it to California as a carbon neutral product.
One of the farming practices that is different is the fact that farmers here spray for weeds. In Brazil, almost weekly there they have to spray for insects and fungus. The soil is a red soil, which Carlson said that he would normally consider that unproductive soil. It is however, like the topsoil in Georgia and obviously very productive.
In the state of Mato Grosso, agriculture is 50% of their economy. Most of the farms there are large, commercial sized farms. Carlson showed a picture of one of the farms that was formed in 1989 and was now 153,000 acres in size. He said the average farm in Iowa is 400 acres. Farmers have created most of these large farming operations in the last 40 years. The cities there are only about 50 years old so it's relatively new developments there he said comparing it to Vinton's celebration of our 150th year.
The Brazilian farmers first started growing soybeans, which competed with the farmers here, then they ran their second crop of corn, which also competed with the farmers here. "Everything they do there is big," Carlson said. He talked about a farmer there that was going to build his own 5 million gallon ethanol plant. "The scale of everything," he said, "Is just different than what we're used to deaing with."
As farmers there was a desire to find out how the profit margins were different, how the practices differ and to discover things that would benefit farmers here. The ability to compare quantities and cost was hard to figure out because of translators and the different measurements. There they use "bags" of soybeans as compared to the U.S. bushel.
Carlson said that one of the largest misconceptions that we get here is that the rain forest is being cleared. He said he's liken it to areas of Arizona and Texas where there are a lot of small trees growing, so they knock those down to produce more food. Conservation requirements demand that they set aside 1/3 of their ground, so he said our perspective on saving the Amazon is completely different here.
Another topic that came up on their trip was the influence of China on the agriculture production in Brazil. Some were of the mind that if China wanted to put money into the development of products there, it was a great idea. Others were concerned about the influence that China might have in the future.
Ethanol production has changed in switching from sugar cane to corn, they now have byproducts to feed their cattle more rather than putting them out to pasture. Cattle are now more often found in feed lots like they would be here, freeing up the land for more crop production.
The differences in transportation are stark for production. In Brazil they had what was called the "soybean highway" which consisted of just a dirt road that they used to transport their grain. That was finally paved a few years ago. Of course, in the US we have the railway system, which is all a standard size, and there it is not. We also have the good roads as well as the barges that travel on the Mississippi River. Carlson expressed his concern about our lock and dam systeem. "In agriculture we have talked about how antiquated or lock and dam system is on the Mississippi and it tributaries for decades. It is a asset that we are letting deteriorate and Brazil is improving their infrastructure."