Each of us in my West Tennessee fifth-grade social studies class selected a country to write about. I chose Brazil. For one thing, other kids grabbed all the cool European countries. More importantly, though, Brazil was big. Any country that takes up that much space on the globe could surely load up pages in an essay.

More than 25 years later, I'm still writing about Brazil, but there's a key difference: I'm not the only kid in the class interested in the topic. Over the past year, at least 10 U.S. farmers, two tour operators and an editor have contacted me by phone, Internet and regular mail. They wanted to know what's happening with soybean production in Brazil, and where they could talk with U.S. citizens farming there.

Sure, a trip to look at Brazilian soybean fields has always been a good, tax-deductible way for a farmer to see another part of the world. But that can't account for what seems to be a surge in new interest.

"We've had a lot of farmers want to see first-hand our competition in Brazil for three or four years now," says Jane Ade Stevens, international marketing manager for the Indiana Soybean Board. The board's international committee voted this year for a pay-your-own-way study trip to Brazil.

"Farmers know Brazil is a serious competitor," she says. "And I think the Roundup Ready soybean issue - whether Brazil will switch to RR beans or not - has increased interest a lot in the last year."

David Asbridge, who led two American Soybean Association-sponsored Brazilian tours in the '90s, agrees. "Interest in Brazil has grown as news of the expansion of waterways and ground transportation has been pointed out to farmers," he says. "U.S. producers know they have a big competitor and want to see just how good they (the Brazilians) are.

"They (U.S. farmers visiting Brazil) most want to see the real stuff," says Asbridge. "That's why the barbecues on individual Brazilian farms are so important - to give the U.S. farmers the chance to see the Brazilian farmers at home."

Ray Hughes, a retired soybean and corn grower from Sorento, IL, plans to sign up for the Indiana trip. He wants to see some of the growing crop, the equipment and what they're using to transport the crop to local and terminal elevators.

But, he says, he's also interested in the human side of the equation: "I would like to meet the people growing soybeans, and see how and where they live - and what their expectations are."

Meanwhile, the operator of a second planned tour of Brazilian soybean-growing areas specifies that his group wants to see not only large farms around the Rondonospolis area, but also virgin land and "a real estate agent."

None of the study missions a decade ago included such meetings, says Asbridge. "But the (touring) farmers were always interested in land prices, especially in the Cerrado region, where land was cheap but had to be cleared and fertilized and limed to grow more beans."

He adds that tour participants were also interested in the "full-priced" land in southern Brazil, where farming had been going on for years.

We former fifth-graders are all grown up now, some of us helping our own kids with homework. But, at least to the farm kids among us, Brazil finally looks cool.

Check Out These Tours At this writing, at least three tours of U.S. farmers to Brazil are being planned for next winter. The Indiana group will focus on soybeans in Brazil's more southerly traditional planting areas as well as the new soybean expansion region of Mato Grosso state. It is scheduled for Mar. 3-13. Contact Jane Ade Stevens at 317-926-6272.

Another tour taking a similar route is being organized by Larry Rupiper, a South Dakota producer and travel agent. Rupiper plans to travel to Brazil in February. Contact him at 888-414-4177.

Soybean Digest's Brazil trip for soybean growers is set for Jan. 26-Feb. 12. Contact KITT Travel at 800-635-5488 or e-mail kitt.groups@kitt-travel.com