On sleepless nights I sometimes haul out the shortwave radio and listen to Brazilian rural radio stations broadcasting in the sparsely populated north-central and northeastern parts of the country. Rural shortwave radio programs are popular because illiteracy in those regions is higher than elsewhere in the country, and because distances are so great between farms.
These programs often dedicate a segment of time for messages from a farm worker on one farm to a farm worker on another. Some are messages of love; some are requests for a family member to come attend to a sick relative.
In northern states like Ceara and Pernambuco, near some of the newest tropical soybean production, only about six of 10 farms have televisions and only three or four of 10 have telephones, according to one study. Only around one in a hundred has a personal computer.
Everything changes as you move south, of course. Roughly 92% of farm properties in the extreme south have TVs and a quarter have telephones. In addition, more and more of them have computers.
Fabiola Campanha Viana began using a computer and the Internet three years ago to manage her employer's farms. Before the computer, she says, the work of administering Fazendas Reunidas Japaranduba's two farms was a lot tougher. He has 150,000 acres in two Brazilian states.
Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but Viana is one of an apparently growing number of Brazilian ag workers and farmers making use of the personal computer to increase output and efficiency.
Viana, among the estimated 4% of Brazilian farm personnel connected to the Internet, says it has become indispensable for getting information on cattle auctions.
With the release of Agri Annual, a yearly compendium on Brazilian agriculture published by FNP Consultoria (www.fnp.com.br), information on what has been called "e-farming" may get a little easier to come by. The 2001 edition will report on a recent study by the Advanced Applied Economics Center of the University of Sao Paulo. It estimates that by June 2000 there were no fewer than 2,491 Brazilian Internet sites on agriculture, selling equipment, providing weather and crop information - and even information on auctions.
Although hard numbers - or even educated guesses - on farm use of the Internet in Brazil are hard to come by, FNP says the Brazilian pattern of rural computer and Internet adoption probably follows the U.S. model. That is, larger farms and farmers are more likely to use these new electronic tools than are their smaller-scale neighbors. For one thing, retail costs of personal computers in Brazil, although dropping to more reasonable levels, have historically been near double the U.S. cost.
On the other hand, as anyone who has had to ask a youngster to help program the VCR can tell you, there appears to be a correlation between age and readiness to adopt new (especially computer-based) gadgets. The average Brazilian farmer is younger than his U.S. counterpart - half are between 31 and 50 years old. This could be a sign for growth in Internet and computer use on-farm in Brazil.
Additionally, there is at least one initiative to get more farmers to use computers as a farming tool. A spokesman for Cooperalfa, a producers' cooperative in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, says only about 500 of the 10,000 farm families associated with the co-op have personal computers.
"Only the larger farmers are online," says Julmir Cecon. The co-op has used federal government programs, he says, to create incentive for the region's smaller farmers to obtain and use computers to track income, expenses and costs of production.
One site (www.globorural.com.br) even offers a chat service where farmers and farm workers can exchange gossip, news and personal messages. I hope, though, that it never replaces the shortwave.