“Around here,” a Brazilian farmer once told me, “you don't buy land — you buy the rainfall.” For a country with an excellent climate but generally poor soils, that dictum seemed to make sense. But this year, La Niña has changed things quite a bit. The rains were slow enough to come that many farmers, especially in Brazil's south, were unable to take advantage of record-high corn prices this year and ended up going to soybeans.

For other producers around the country, the rains — when they come — are either too intense or too scattered. But with a generally wide planting window in Brazil, we'll see how much the odd rainfall patterns affect the planted area.

In the meantime, biodiesel and corn have been on the radar down here:

JATROPHA CURCAS

What if kudzu became a source of biodiesel? In Brazil, Jatropha curcas, a hearty and noxious oilseed, may be having its own Cinderella story in the age of biodiesel. But, as in the fictional case of kudzu, there's little research on actually planting it. However, Brazil is slated to use 2% biodiesel nationwide starting Jan. 1, and with big tax breaks given to biodiesel coming from plants that can be hand-harvested, Jatropha may be coming into its own. And, like kudzu,it'll grow just about anywhere.

With plenty of talk of bumping up the date for a minimum 5% biodiesel blend to take effect,originally scheduled for 2013, biodiesel producers are hurriedly distributing seedlings to families in Brazil's countryside.

Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, which regulates fuels here, says that right now, there are 2.4 billion liters of biodiesel capacity; it should jump to 3 billion liters by January with the construction of new plants.

Nilma Alves da Silva, agronomist for the BioNorte biodiesel plant in Brazil's Goias state, says there are few public studies on Jatropha curcas, so much remains to be done by trial and error. Jatropha curcas will grow anywhere, but like any plant, the better the growing conditions the better the potential yields. Alves says, “We apply ¾-1 ton of lime/acre, and space the trees 10 ft. apart, with 6.5 ft. between rows.

“Our expectation is to get 350-700 lbs./acre (of the Jatropha curcas nut) after the third year,” she says. Yields start as low as ½ lb./plant the first year and climb thereafter. And, she says, the nut has 52%useable oil.

“There are some private groups working on ways to machine-harvest the plant,” she adds, which would likely involve shaking the nuts from the tree as with coffee. Until then, though, the Brazilian government favors castor, Jatropha curcas and other hearty oilseeds that demand lots of hand labor.

GMOS AND FRENCH HENS

There was a big fight here over whether the government would allow farmers to plant Roundup Ready soybeans. French delegations came over to tell Brazilian farmers they could sell lots of soy to Europe by staying GMO-free, but there was little or no economic incentive to go GMO-free while the U.S. and Argentina were saving on chemical costs.

With corn, though, the pressure is going the other way. At least one high-level functionary at the Ministry of Agriculture has reportedly leaned on members of the Brazilian House ag caucus to pressure regulatory bodies here to allow importing biotech corn to feed Brazil's broilers.

Brazil and France perennially vie for the title of world's second-largest broiler exporter (after the U.S.), and those birds need energy. With the U.S. keeping more of its corn for the fuel tank and world prices at record highs, Brazil is forecast to export a record 11 million tons of corn this year. Public stocks are estimated to be depleted by January. And corn production is concentrated far from Brazil's Northeast — the second-largest poultry-producing region of the country.