An Inside Look at Brazil's Mega Farms

An Inside Look at Brazil's Mega Farms

U.S. farmers share what they learned from visits to some of the world's biggest farms

Driving past the golden brown soybean fields ready for harvest, the long narrow road turns into a forest filled with towering eucalyptus trees. Gilberto Goellner's operation is not your typical U.S. farm – it's located thousands of miles south, in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.

Goellner and his wife farm what many in the U.S. would call a "mega farm." The family raises more than 32,000 acres of soybeans for seed and commodity purposes. His company, Sementes Girassol, produces not only soybean seed and soybeans, but also cotton, cottonseed, corn, eucalyptus and beef cattle.

Gilbert Goellner farms over 100,000 acres in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

The company has roughly 14,800 acres of cotton, 5,000 acres of corn and 17,000 acres of planted eucalyptus trees. Like many other seed companies in the region, they own a portion of their land and rent additional acres for production. 

U.S. farmers often hear about large crop production coming out of South America. The U.S. International Trade Commission reports that in 2014, Brazil will vie for the largest soybean producing country right alongside the U.S.

Earlier this year a group of upper Midwestern farmers got a first-hand look at just how much production can come from Brazil, during a tour hosted by Rabo AgriFinance. Here's what they learned:

Browsing Brazil

"Brazil consists of a lot of large farms with lots of labor," observes Derrick Appert a corn, soybean and sunflower farmer from Hazelton, ND. "The largest farm we were on had 750 employees."

But it was not only the number of employees that surprised Appert and other farmers on the trip. "These farms are very self-sufficient, with everything from their own service stations, spray planes, mechanics, housing and cafeteria for their workers," he says. "They even had bus transportation for the employees' kids to get to and from school."

One of these farms was Sementes Adriana, a company founded by the Odilio Balbinotti family, which has been involved in agriculture in the region for more than 50 years. The company produces primarily soybean, millet and crotalaria seeds.

Sementes Adriana has roughly 59,000 acres of soybeans and 50,000 acres of millet used for seed production in this location. In addition they raise 37,000 acres of soybeans for market. Currently, the company works with farmers across the country to sow more than 1.5 million acres of seed. However, due to growing conditions, pest and disease pressure roughly 40% is discarded, according to company officials.

The company focuses on high tech production of seeds. Adriana conducts research and testing at its location. Labs are set up to test for quality issues on sight. The company works with other companies around the world to provide the latest genetics to their customers, including Roundup Ready technology. In 2012 the company acquired 50% of a genetic bank for millet seeds.

Not alone

Just down the road from Adriana is the seed company Grupo Bom Jesus. Run by brothers Nelson Jose Vigolo and Geraldo Vigolo, this company produces corn, cotton and soybean seed. Like the Balbinotti family, the Vigolo's have been farming for more than 40 years in the Mato Grasso region. They also own land in Bahia and Piaui, two eastern Brazilian states ripe for ag development.

The company has a total of roughly 48,000 acres dedicated to soybean seed production at the location visited by the Rabo tour group. In all the company has roughly 321,000 acres in soybean seed production in partnership with farmers located across the region. In addition they have 54,000 acres of soybeans, 128,000 acres of cotton and 79,000 acres in second crop corn production.

Bom Jesus also has a seed treatment facility on location. On loan from Syngenta, Bom Jesus treats soybean, corn, cotton and bean seeds in exchange for using Syngenta products.

Small machinery

While the amount of land under agriculture production is massive, the machinery used to farm the ground is not.

"The biggest surprise to me was their use of smaller and older equipment," says Nebraska farmer Dean Otto. "In the U.S. most farmers of their size would be using larger equipment in the size fields they are farming."

Appert was also amazed at the smaller machinery. He recalls that one farm had 120 combines equivalent to a 7700 John Deere. "I was expecting bigger pieces of equipment," he notes, "but since labor is readily available and the roads are not fit for larger equipment, it all made sense."

While many farmers on the tour had not seen family farms this size in the U.S., they found that Brazil's farmers are making it work. Both men say they see agriculture production only increasing in the near future.

In Brazil, there is "about 100 million more acres available to be turned into farm ground," Otto says.

- Mindy Ward is editor of our sister publication, Missouri Ruralist. She spent a week this spring with U.S. farmers touring the agriculture industry in Brazil.

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