U.S. Farmers Turn to Brazilian Land

This second of two reports explores the practice of American farmers using Brazilian soil. The land is a fraction of what it costs in the Midwest, labor is cheap, and the climate hospitable enough to grow crops 12 months a year. But U.S. farmers have other issues to deal with there.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Brazil a farming bonanza is turning millions of acres of scrub land into vast soy and cotton fields. Lured by low land prices and high yields, US farmers are helping push back the new agricultural frontier in South America's largest country. In the second part of our series on US farmers joining Brazil's agro-boom, NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled into the heartland of Brazil to see how the new pioneers are faring.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Six generations of the Carroll family have tilled the soil of Illinois. Now the eldest heir to that legacy, 25-year-old John Carroll, is turning up the earth some 5,000 miles away in the Brazilian state of Bahia.

Mr. JOHN CARROLL (Brazil Farmer): There's three grain bins off on the horizon.

McCARTHY: Yeah.

Mr. J. CARROLL: That's the end of the farm; 7.2 miles in that direction.

McCARTHY: We can see seven and a half miles? The land is that flat here?

Mr. J. CARROLL: Yeah. We've tested it with GPS and you can go for miles and have a three-foot change in altitude. Unbelievably flat.

McCARTHY: This ancient plateau in Brazil's expanding Soybean Belt feels like Montana and Texas rolled into one. Seven and a half million acres sprawl beneath a vast dome of blue. John Carroll careens down a two-lane highway to the family's spread, rattling off production yields. He brought his business degree and his bride to the epicenter of a boom that has put Brazil on track to surpass the United States as the world's biggest producer of soybeans. He joins about a dozen other Americans in western Bahia clearing this sandy scrub, called Sohoto(ph), and turning land once thought useless into thriving fields; fields of dreams for Darryl Carroll(ph).

(Soundbite of machinery noises)

McCARTHY: John's grandfather, Darryl, started out with 240 acres in Hancock County, Illinois, 50 years ago. He came down to check out the family's 8,000 acres of soy and cotton. The 75-year-old tinkers with broken equipment, chats with farm hands and delights in the novelty of his family's fourth season in Brazil.

Mr. DARRYL CARROLL (John's Grandfather): Oh, it does astound me, yeah. I'm just amazed at all of this going on and all this land. And like I say, John said when Grandpa started out, which is me, you know--it just had a smaller acreage and smaller tractors. And boy, wouldn't have envisioned anything--it might have been a dream. It's just an ideal agricultural area. You know, it's just ideal.

(Soundbite of unidentified noises)

McCARTHY: The Carroll's acreage is small compared to some Brazilian-owned farms. In the state of Mato Grosso, the governor himself owns 347,000 acres of soybeans. Grandson and grandfather Carroll share excitement over their more modest venture.

Mr. J. CARROLL: I had never even seen cotton until earlier.

Mr. D. CARROLL: I never did really either. And it's all very expensive, you know. It takes probably four times as much money to raise a crop of cotton as a crop of beans. So you're taking more of a challenge and not taking the easy road, you know.

McCARTHY: The Carrolls took the not-so-easy road to Brazil when Darryl's sons discovered cheap land. John Carroll says when his family bought for $220 an acre here, compared to $4,000 an acre in Illinois, they were merely heeding the advice of billionaire Warren Buffett.

Mr. J. CARROLL: He says if you can buy dollars for 40 cents you should just buy all of them you can and assume it's going to work out. So we came here and looked around. We really thought, like, we were buying a lot of dollars for 40 cents.

(Soundbite of machinery noises)

McCARTHY: Rain halts the planting this day. Seventy inches will fall over the next six months, then nothing the rest of the year. That suits young John Carroll. He says the long, dry season preserves the crops and the machinery.

Mr. J. CARROLL: (Portuguese language spoken)

McCARTHY: John converses in Portuguese with his 50 salaried farm hands who get room and board on this 365-day-a-year farm. Bartolomeo Gomez Veheda(ph) is a cotton specialist who earns about $550 a month, four times the minimum wage. He says the American farmers set a standard for Brazil.

Mr. BARTOLOMEO GOMEZ VEHEDA (Carroll Farm Hand): (Through translator) Personally, and most people will say the same thing, it's wonderful working for Americans. Americans come, they hire you and they pay exactly what they promise to pay you, and treat you very well with dignity.

McCARTHY: The Carrolls also cultivate 13,000 acres for a group of investors from the US. Foreigners generally cannot own land without a local partner, but the potential for profit has people beating a path to John Carroll's door.

Mr. J. CARROLL: What I've heard from institutional investors from hedge funds, from pension funds, the big money, if you can show us a track record three years, five years, of a 10-percent return, there are hundreds of millions of dollars to come down.

McCARTHY: But progress has a price. Conservation International predicts that the Sohoto, or savannah of central Brazil, could disappear by the year 2030, endangering hundreds of species and degrading important sources of water. By law, the Carrolls keep 20 percent of their property in its natural state. But conservationist Pavel Gastavo(ph) says not everyone does, and enforcement can be lax.

Mr. PAVEL GASTAVO (Conservationist): Of course, there is bribe. There is incompetence. There is everything. You name it.

(Soundbite of a phone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: (Portuguese language spoken)

McCARTHY: The farming bonanza is also transforming the economic landscape. Business is brisk at the dealership of John Deere, one of several American giants heavily invested here. In the restaurants springing up in the boom town, Louis Edwardo(ph), agribusinessmen of the big transnationals buzz about Brazil as the new frontier. Former ambassador to Washington, Rubens Barbosa, says, like the US, Brazil is a melting pot that welcomes foreigners and their money.

Mr. RUBENS BARBOSA (Former Ambassador): There's no discrimination against foreigners here. And if there is a farmer--American farmer or Italian farmer, whatever, if they develop land, if they plant, if they employ people, they are well treated.

McCARTHY: Iowa-based agricultural consultant, Calvin Liebold(ph), says the warm reception is alluring.

Mr. CALVIN LIEBOLD (Agricultural Consultant): There's such an openness, there's such a welcoming, generally, people wanting you to bring your money down and invest. And that's a lot different than what the culture's become in Iowa in the last 20 years.

McCARTHY: But Liebold also cautions that American farmers face the Portuguese language, poor roads, tangled bureaucracy, tropical fungus and no federal crop insurance. Even as he rides Brazil's historic agricultural wave, John Carroll acknowledges there is nothing natural about Americans farming in Brazil. But grandfather, Darryl, says there's nothing unnatural about the risks.

(Soundbite of machinery noises)

Mr. D. CARROLL: Oh, I guess the pioneering spirit in all of us to branch out and do this, and this area was never farmed in a million years and we cleaned it off and are farming it. It's just like when they settled the Old West. It's hard to imagine.

McCARTHY: As it was hard for Darryl Carroll to imagine five years ago that the youngest generation of his family would be joining the juggernaut that is farming in Brazil. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And our first report on farmers from the American Midwest, Finding Partners In Brazil, is at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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