Farmer's account of farming the new frontier

Brazil doesn't have a pot of gold at the end of its rainbow — farming its land successfully takes a lot of money, strategy and hard work.

Yet its challenges are, in part, what drew Jay Edwards to raise crops near Querência, Brazil.

A former Indiana farm boy, Edwards manages 8,000 acres of transitional woods 500 miles south of the rain forest. His investors/partners include two Bloomville, OH, farmers, Ed and Richard Harer.

Since ’94, when Edwards first moved to Querência, he has cleared 3,000 acres. Last year he planted 1,800 soybean acres and another 600 of corn. The rest is in pasture. It costs him $277.39/ acre to buy, clear and lime transitional woods, which has better soil than the cerrado brush land so many are rushing to develop.

American farmers he speaks with are envious of those costs.

“But in Brazil, when I tell people what it costs to clear land where we are, they think it's too high,” says Edwards.

“The main things Brazil has over the U.S. are cheap land, labor and chemicals,” adds Richard Harer, who runs a 2,500-acre farm in Ohio with his brother Ed and other family members. “Equipment is about the same price, but fuel there is higher. Their fertilizer and transportation costs are a lot higher. If you take all the U.S. land costs and the LDP payment out of the cost of production, there isn't a whole lot of difference in actual profit margins between Brazil and the U.S.”

Yet Edwards and the Harers will continue to invest in Brazil. One reason, they say, is their strong focus on missionary work.

“We went there to minister to the pioneers, but if we weren't farming with them, we'd be dead in the water,” Edwards says.

It took three years for the Brazilians to accept Edwards, his wife Kirsten, sons Jason and Aaron, and daughter Christiana. “If I had just farmed, they wouldn't have been so suspicious. But I started teaching Bible in the local school. We were running a Sunday school and Bible study; I was coaching soccer. They wondered why. Did I want to be mayor?”

Before they could farm, the Edwardses cleared land. Licenses had to be acquired, trees were downed, then sold or burned. Roots were raked and sticks picked up. The Brazilian government allows only 50% of the transitional woods to be cleared; the rest must stay in trees. In brush areas, south of Edwards' area, 80% of the land can be cleared. Rain forest areas can't be touched.

The bartering that Brazilians are known for came in handy for the Americans; the Harers' dozer cleared land for neighbors in exchange for planting and combining the first few years.

The first two years after clearing, fields were planted to rice, making it easier to harvest on uneven, unsettled ground. Edwards also spread ⅓ ton/acre of lime on rice ground its second year. Another 1¼ tons were applied when the field went to beans.

The third year, soybeans were planted in 18" rows. In fall 1999 (Brazil's spring), Edwards broadcast fertilizer and seed in some areas, then disked — and got his best yield, 62 bu/acre. March ’01 bean yields were expected to average 50 bu/acre on planted ground, 55 bu/acre on broadcast areas.

Where Edwards lives, Brazil's weather pattern consists of about seven months of rain and five of drought. “We get about 100” of rain a year. It starts raining in October or November and rains through April and May.”

Although there's supposed to be a six-week window for planting, last year Edwards had only eight days to plant beans.

His corn yields only about 90 bu/acre, yet last year it sold for what he got for beans — $3.50/bu. He markets corn to local cattlemen because transporting it is too expensive. Beans are marketed through a local co-op with 2 million bushels of storage.

“Our biggest frustration is getting parts — everything is 11 or 17 hours away,” says Ed Harer.

Although the Edwardses are very involved in the community, frontier life is filled with uncertainty and isolation. “It's hard living up on that frontier,” he says. “A lot of people go back after two or three years, usually because the wife doesn't like it. And, really, it's hard for my wife, too.”