You could call Chris Ward a frontiersman. At the very least, you'd have to describe this New Zealand native as a strapping man who's spent the last 25 years carving out his 34,000-acre operation in the newer farming territory of Mato Grosso state in Brazil. During those years, he's actually gone broke a couple of times and doesn't apologize for it.
He's truly an entrepreneur and just one of the many farmers we visited on a recent Corn And Soybean Digest tour of Brazil. Like many in this newer northern frontier, he's a big thinker and big doer. Farmers there seem to thrive on adversity and feed on challenges. If you're looking for a routine, almost predictable farm life, Mato Grosso is not for you.
Total farming acres and production in that state have doubled in the last 12 years. Most of that growth can be attributed to soybeans and more recently a vigorous interest in cotton. It's gone from 4 million tillable acres 10 years ago to 11 million acres this year. In the next 12 years, Mato Grosso is expected to produce nearly 60% of all the ag products in Brazil. Average farm size runs about 5,000 acres.
Like the U.S., Brazil farmers see funding for public research dwindling, too. But when monies for university and Embrapa (comparable to USDA) research dried up, farmers hunkered down and came up with their own reals to fund ag experiments. They absolutely have a get-it-done attitude.
As you've heard before, the big holdup for more rapid expansion is infrastructure — roadways, railroads and waterways. For example, federal highway 364 from Cuiabá to Rondonopolis, nearly 180 miles, still is almost gridlocked during soybean harvest with trucks hauling as many as 1,500 miles to unload. The entire state of Mato Grosso, roughly the size of Texas, only has four asphalt roads.
During peak harvest, Chris Ward says: “I wouldn't even try driving it (Hwy 364).”
Our tour bus was actually just behind a deadly accident that killed three people on that highway. An hour later, we passed a semi engulfed in flames on the side of the road. It was hauling what had been a load of cotton.
Obviously, farming in Mato Grosso is far from routine. Still, it attracts wanna-be farmers, especially in the northeastern part of the state where cerrado, or dry grasslands, continues to be cleared.
There are now 145 million acres of land in Brazil being used for farming. However, they have nearly 425 million acres that can still be developed.
Besides soybeans, cotton, corn and rice, they have the world's largest commercial cattle herd at 165 million head. Most are a grass-fed breed called Nelore. But beware. They're working toward more crossbreeding with breeds like Simmental and Limousin. And they're experimenting, albeit at a snail's pace, with confinement feeding that includes grain-based rations.
In addition, hog and poultry production is expanding. Smithfield Foods recently built a new 15,000-sow unit 150 miles west of Cuiabá. It plans to expand to 50,000 sows within five years.
Next month, we'll feature an expanded look at Brazil and provide you with some production figures so you can see how your farm compares.
Until then, thanks to all the travelers who went with us on this trip and we look forward to seeing some new faces next year.