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Brazil's 'ag frontier'

URUCUI, Piaui (—It’s the new ‘New Agricultural Frontier’ of Brazil’s Cerrado. In the 1980’s, the state of Mato Grosso was labeled the area of South America with the greatest potential for millions of acres of soybean production. That title has been transferred.

Though farmers have produced crops here for ten years, electricity just showed up last year in this town located on a northeastern Brazil plateau, thousands of feet above sea level. Farmers journeyed here from the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Parana. The land-seeking farmers were led here by a cooperative to clear Cerrado land that was priced, at the time, at $66 per acre. After two years, the coop pulled out but the farm-families stayed. Today, developed land sales for $1,890,00 per acre.

Uruci, is located in the Nova Santa Rosa district, one of five on the plateau. Nova Santa Rosa (with Nova meaning ‘new’) was named after most of the farmers’ hometown of Santa Rosa, Parana.

Huge potential

With over 700,000 acres in production, an additional 10,000 acres added this year and another 4,000 acres to be cleared for 2012, this new ‘New Frontier’ has tremendous potential. In fact, the entire plateau has another 7.0 million acres of land that can be cleared for crop production.

Wilson Marcolin, 37,  a third generation farmer, left the family’s southern Brazil farm site in Parana to extend the operation on the new ‘New Frontier’. In Nova Santa Rosa, he met his would-be wife, Geisa,  and they now raise two children on 2,400 acres.

This year, the Marcolins are growing 900 soybean and 449 acres of corn. “If I can, I like to keep my rotation of 70% soybeans and 30% corn,” Marcolin says.

In Nova Santa Rosa, soybean yields are seen at 49 bushels per acre, above last year’s 44 bu/acre, Marcolin says.

Meanwhile, this week, The Crop Expedition by Gazeta do Povo that this reporter is traveling on, discovered Celso Werner, another Nova Santa Rosa district farmer, harvesting early planted soybeans. “I was getting 50 sacks per hectare versus 43 last year,” Werner says. 

Celso has already sold 80% of his new crop, he says.

Marcolin plans to harvest in March. He sells 40% of his production to the local swine and poultry operations. So far, he has 10% of his new crop. “I’m happy I didn’t sell more with the market still going higher,” Marcolin says.


Operating on the plateau

On the plateau, thriving poultry and swine production operations offer these farmers a $7-$8 premium price for their corn and soybeans, even higher than high-earning Parana state farmers receive.

For example, before and after the harvest season, farmers in Nova Santa Rosa can be offered $7-$8.

Bunge, a multinational grain company, is the only other commercial buyer on the plateau.

Leandeo Tonel, a Bunge territorial representative, says the company has grain storage capacity of 1.70 million bushels in the Nova Santa Rosa district. That is 25% of the district’s total production. However, Bunge has 12.13 million bushels of grain storage for all five communities on the plateau. “We are working on increasing the storage capacity. During peak harvest time, it’s difficult to find enough grain trucks up here. In addition, because the plateau is difficult to travel to, transportation prices are incredibly high. So, Bunge stores the grain until harvest is over. When trucks make their way down the plateau to retrieve dry fertilizer, we hire those drivers to haul down grain.”


Sandy soils

Marcolin is raising only his second corn crop in ten years, on the new ‘New Frontier’. In his first year, this Brazilian farmer’s corn produced a 143 bushel per acre crop, comparable to Guarapuava, Parana, the city with the country’s highest corn yielding soil.

In Piaui, the sandy soil is low in nutrients and is considered to be of low quality. However, these new ‘New Frontier’ farmers have figured out how to apply fertilizers and other products to increase yields.

It takes a village

There are a lot of challenges this new farm town faces. One of those is the risk of losing the next  generation of farmers to a bigger city, says Geisa Marcolin. “The kids want to go to a bigger city to get higher educations and that is encouraged. I just dream that they want to come back, but I don’t think they will.”

She adds, “I think the farm town’s expansion will come from other people coming to this area.

Meanwhile, the area is experiencing the same situation that presented itself to lower Brazilian states during their developing states, rights of land ownership.

“We have about three farmers that are fighting over ownership documents,” one local farmer says. “This happened to other developing areas 50 years ago and it’s happening here. This is slowing further development for the plateau.”

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