In terms of planted area, Brazil's soybean crop got off relatively lightly in the credit collapse that followed October's bailout announcements. Farmers had already contracted for many inputs before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac effectively became taxpayer property.
“The (credit) crisis came after planting decisions for the summer crop had already been made, with a good portion of inputs already bought,” says Leonardo Solo-guren, an analyst at Celeres, a Brazilian consultancy.
But that's not to say farmer investments toward bean yields were the same as ever once the seed was in the ground.
“Due to credit that came slowly or never did come…a good number of farmers won't be able to properly treat their crop, and consequently will lose yield,” says Jose Oswaldo Galvao Junqueira, president of the Carol Cooperative, with branches in five states.
Junqueira's view appears to be borne out on the ground. At least on the ground in Parana, Brazil's second-largest soybean-producing state, where Edison Ponti farms. In November, he says fertilizer costs “went up an average of 35% from the year before last to this year. This year, we've seen big increases. And that's why I'm going to plant my (520-acre) crop without fertilizer.”
At the same time, about 850 miles to the north, Naildo Silva Lopes, farming 140 acres of soybeans in Mato Grosso, says he'll “be using less fertilizer than last year. That's for sure.”
LOPES IS APPARENTLY not alone. Brazil's fertilizer association has reported that November fertilizer deliveries to end customers were logged at 1.2 million metric tons (mmt). That same group reported 2.4 mmt of end-consumer fertilizer deliveries nationwide in November 2007.
And farmers may be cutting back on more than fertilizers. In a country where agricultural loans can take forever to come through, more and more farmers here have turned to the multinational ag processors for operating capital. In exchange for inputs of all kinds, they sell beans in the ground to cover planting costs.
Last year, according to one consulting company, less than 10% of the soybean crop was pre-sold by Aug. 1. By the same date in 2007, that number was 21%. Producers waited a long time this year for reluctant processors to open up credit for beans in the ground. But even when they did, there seemed to be fewer company reps pushing inputs-for-beans loans.
It's not clear just how much effect reduction of inputs like fertilizer will cost Brazil in terms of yield this year. As of early January, the first of the short-cycle soybeans are being harvested in northern Mato Grosso, and yields so far are reported within the norm. But in a country of generally poor soils, less fertilizer usually means less yield, though some producers in northern Mato Grosso were talking about applying more lime this year to increase the availability of leftover nutrients from last year.
And it's not just the credit problems that could hurt soybean production in the same planted area: The weather has had a little something to do with it, too. Parana underwent weeks of drought in December; it was the same thing for Rio Grande do Sul, farther south. Thousands of farmers have filed crop insurance claims, and the only good part, says one state official, is that prices will get better.
That's likely to be of little comfort for farmers with fewer beans to sell. But there is hope, at writing, that the soybean crop can recover. Fertilizer-free Ponti says the corn, though, has suffered irreversible losses.
James Thompson is a writer and marketing consultant based in Uberaba, Brazil, a center of soybean, corn, cattle and sugarcane production. You can contact him at email@example.com.