Can sustainable agriculture survive alongside mega-farms?
By Ben Lilliston
Today, we got our shoes dirty. We visited two very different types of farms outside this bustling agriculture town of Lucas do Rio Verde. One, struggling to survive, the other seemingly thriving. One small, one large. One growing all food, the other nearly all agricultural commodities. The stories of both farms reflect the challenges and promises of Brazilian agriculture.
This morning we drove down a dirt road surrounded by cotton and corn fields, till the road split off in a V. In a triangle shaped wedge, 30 families (each with 2.5 hectares, or 6 acres) managed a series of highly diverse farms.
The lead farmer we talked with (at right in the photo) had finally been granted access to the land three years ago, after working in the fields for others in the area for 20 years. He had travelled north from southern Brazil, where his father owned a farm, but also had six children, meaning there wasn’t enough room for everyone on the farm when they grew up. He headed north to claim his own farm. As he was introduced to our group, his deep blue eyes immediately went to peoples’ hands. He said he was trying to identify who were the farmers in our group.
The 30 families mostly farm to feed themselves. They grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, pigs, poultry and cattle. What they don’t eat, they sell in town at the market. While the government helped them locate the land, they receive very little other government support and technical assistance.
There are other challenges. Pesticides sprayed onto the larger farms often drift onto their land, with no buffers except a narrow dirt road. Bugs from nearby soy fields often migrated onto their land when spraying takes place. The farmers expressed concern that expanded corn acreage associated with U.S. ethanol production was increasing pressure to expand soy production in Brazil, and hence further squeeze their access to land in Mato Grosso.
It was clear that life and work on these farms was extremely difficult. When asked, he admitted that in some ways it was harder than life as a laborer, but they wouldn’t trade it. They were becoming self sufficient, and things were getting better.
We saw a different side of Brazilian agriculture when we visited with Carlos Pedrozan later that day. Pedrozan owns an immaculate 500 hectare soybean and corn farm. His father travelled to Mato Grosso from the south of Brazil 25 years ago. At that time, about 30 percent of his land was deforested. Now, 75 percent of the land is deforested. Over the last 25 years, land prices have increased “1000 percent.” And many foreign groups are looking for land to develop in the region, according to Pedrozan.
The farm began to grow soybeans right away. But it was only five years ago that they began to grow a different, second crop —corn—during the same season (something we can’t do in the U.S.). When we arrived his corn crop was in the field. While he’s not quite able to get the yields our Minnesota farmers on the trip reported, that’s not entirely the point. His corn is sold for feed connected to the giant pork and poultry facility in town run by Sadia. But it also serves to complement the soybeans to feed the soil.
Like U.S. farmers he talked about the challenges of low prices. Soybean prices are lower in the region
than elsewhere in the country because of the high costs associated with truck transport. Corn prices are also low. Like U.S. farmers he is a price taker, meaning he doesn’t set his prices and must take what the agribusiness companies pay him. He thought the level of production in the U.S. affects the price he receives for corn, but not so much for soybeans, because the market is more local (Sadia, and a nearby soy biodiesel plant).
Unlike U.S. farmers, Pedrozan receives no government support, like crop insurance or subsidies, when the market or weather hits a tough patch. Recently, his soybeans had been hit with a type of nematoid that sounded like cysts to our Minnesota farmers in the group.
Will there be room enough in Brazil for both types of farms, big and small? For a country this size, and all the benefits it has for agricultural production (land, water and tropical weather), and now money and investment, there should be room for both. But it appears government and agribusiness investment have mostly picked one type of farm over the other.