When he's not greeting happy souls at the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter, to many Brazilian farmers, is responsible for rainfall. In a country with large areas of poor soils, timely rainfall can make or break a soybean crop. One northerly Brazilian farmer went so far as to say, “around here, we don't buy the soil — we buy the rainfall.”
In fact, Mato Grosso state gets something like 43 in. of precipitation per year, more than some of Iowa's wettest counties in 2005. The difference is that here, there's almost no precipitation from May through August. So those first rains of September, coming, as they do, after a long dry spell, are crucial. And, this year, St. Peter was right on time. What's more, this year's El Niño effect is forecast to provide steady rains through the growing season across the southern part of the nation, which has suffered from crippling dry spells.
For farmers here, that's a pretty good start to a year that follows some difficult times for all but sugarcane and orange producers. The high price of oil, which has cost soybean farmers a lot, has done for sugarcane what it's doing for corn in the U.S. Midwest. Soybeans are a fuel source, too, and the government is pressing mandatory biodiesel blends. This comes not soon enough to be of help to many indebted Brazilian soybean farmers, who are cutting back on planting, and thus reducing trips in the field.
By mid-September, the first long, slow rains began, and some Mato Grosso state producers were putting in the first, fast-maturing, of their two soybean crops. Others were doing the math on how and what they could afford to plant in October or November. Experts predict at least a 7% reduction in Brazil's soybean planted area this year.
In a year of tractor-cades and government commodity auctions aimed at propping up prices, farmers are also making their decisions about politics. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who years ago lost his pinkie finger in a factory accident, is up for re-election. Polls just a month before elections showed him with a commanding lead. But the opposition is ahead in four of the six agricultural states.
Employees of ag concerns are e-mailing pictures of a four-fingered hand with a “prohibited” slash through it. One of the most popular bumper stickers seen in the parking lots of agribusinesses says, “Lula — Agriculture's Worst Pest.” And one (hardly scientific) Internet poll among people interested in agriculture favors one of Lula's opponents, Gerlado Alckmin, 53% to 38%, with lesser-known candidates accounting for the rest.
But even with production farmers favoring a change, Lula looks like a shoo-in for a second term.
Are you better off? The answer to that in rural Brazil depends on the producer's size and income. Medium and larger farmers, who grow crops for export, are not at all better off. But subsistence farmers are doing pretty well under Lula, thank you. The head of one agribusiness group recently pointed out that the budget for resettling landless rural families on appropriated plots was tripled under the current administration, while spending for the eradication of hoof-and-mouth — a more export-focused activity — came to only about a tenth of that amount. And a hoe, cheaper to run than a tractor, is relatively even cheaper now, when diesel prices are at a high.
It wouldn't make sense to blame any president of Brazil for a relatively weak dollar or high world petroleum prices. But farmers do seem to blame Lula for what he has done — or not done — in response to these challenges.