Brazil Diary: No Easy Profit In Brazil

Farming is not easy in Brazil and its soils present challenges.

Published on: Sep 10, 2008

I hope you've enjoyed my last two articles from Brazil. If you haven't read them, they are posted on the Wallace's Farmer website under "web exclusives".
I’ve learned a lot about farming here in Western Bahia region. I attended meetings with Brazil Iowa Farm’s (BIF) consulting agronomist as well as visited with BIF’s full time agronomist about cropping practices in Brazil.

The soil in this area is extremely old and weathered, while the farms are quite new. The majority of farms have been cultivated for less than 10 years, and the oldest farms are around 20 years old. Cerrado is the Portuguese name for natural land that hasn't been opened for ag use. There is still some of this land here in this area, but fewer and fewer acres each year.

On this natural habitat, small shrubs, trees and tall grasses grow. To farm the cerrado land, trees have to be cut and grasses burned. The soil is very acidic, low in organic matter and low in nutrients. The natural soil here is approximately 75% sand, 5% silt and 20% clay.

Improving the soil is a huge task, but is the main priority for those beginning to farm an unimproved piece of land. First step is to increase the pH to a level suitable for production. Cerrado soil has a pH of around 4, so large amounts of lime are needed to bring the soil pH up above 6.

Fertilizer is needed

Besides lime, other nutrients such as phosphorus need to be applied heavily the first year. Farmers may apply another 100 lbs of P205 per acre just to “correct” the soil.

Gypsum is also applied and is a very useful nutrient. It’s a cheap form of sulfur and is highly soluble in water, so it breaks down rapidly as it moves deeper into the soil.

In general, crop production requires heavy amounts of fertilizer that are usually broadcast over the field. But over time, fertilizer rates can be reduced as the soil profile is built and a reserve of nutrients is maintained.

Another important step in creating a good soil is to increase the soil organic matter (SOM). The natural soil is around 1% organic matter. Farmers have to be patient on this aspect of their fields. The main way to increase SOM is by farming the land. It takes time, but with good farming practices farmers are usually able to increase SOM to 2% to 3%.

Farmers can raise the SOM more rapidly, however, by inter-seeding a grass with the corn crop, plant millet following the soybean crop and use no-till practices. When I first arrived in Brazil, I thought, “Wow, the corn fields are extremely weedy.” I found out farmers broadcast grass seed over the top of the corn.

They then spray the grass with a herbicide that slows its growth, but allows it to recuperate later once the corn is harvested. The grass can either be grazed or plowed under to provide a green manure and increase organic matter more rapidly. It is nearly impossible to attain high organic levels in soil here, but a farmer’s goal is to create a soil that’s at least 2% organic matter. When looking at the soil profile you see the difference between an older farm and a new farm just by color of the soil.

Deep tillage and plowing help move nutrients and lime down into the root zone and is needed for several years. With all of these soil improvements necessary, farming new ground in Brazil comes with a high cost.

Many crops can be grown

In western Bahia a number of different crops can be grown. Even with the poor soil, many people tell me this area is the perfect place to grow multiple crops. With the only poor aspect being the soil, the area seems to have the right combination of altitude, temperature, sun light hours and rain (in the wet season) while also enjoying the absence of a frost threat.

I’ve seen trees, papaya, oranges, limes, lemons, cotton, corn, soybeans, coffee, sugar cane and pineapple being grown. Farmers continue to try new crops each year. One farmer is thinking about growing cocoa, and I’ve heard others talk about peanuts.

The full potential of the area may still not be realized, the opportunities seem endless. These prospects do not stop with growing crops either. Opportunities with livestock or other ag related businesses exist too.

Growing some of these crops, however, may come with extra costs. The soil doesn’t have much natural fertility, so most nutrients need to be applied. Also, the area gets most of its 1600 millimeters (64-in.) of rain during the “rainy season” which is November to March. The rest of the months are fairly dry and some crops require irrigation.

This is my final report from Brazil. I’ve learned a lot about farming in Brazil. I’d like to thank Brazil Iowa Farms for this internship. We will continue to hear about agriculture in Brazil and other developing countries. I hope through reading my reports you have a better perspective of Brazilian agriculture. While you sip your coffee at the local gathering place in Iowa thinking about your crops, farmers in Brazil are doing the same.