Revolutionary Brazilian grower creates thriving arable business

Pioneering Brazilian grower Carla Mayara Borges has overcome huge challenges to transform a poor grass farm into a thriving arable business

Carla’s farming career started on her family’s farm, Fazendas Nova Geração in Chapadão do Céu, Goiás, which grows soybean, sorghum, cotton and corn. The business was set up in the 1980s after the family moved from the south into a, then, unproductive area of Brazil’s mid-west region. Initially Carla’s parents battled with a light soil that was susceptible to wind erosion in the long, dry summers. But an early switch to no-till saw a dramatic improvement in soil fertility. The improvement, combined with early varieties, means it is possible to grow two crops, one of soybeans and the other of cotton, sorghum or corn, in the same year - a feat achieved by 75% of soybean growers in Brazil.

After graduating from university with a business degree, Carla spent two years back on the farm gaining practical experience of the large-scale operation. She then got the pioneering bug and, just as her parents had done in the 1980s, wanted to move north to establish a farm herself.

“My parents said they did not want to move all over again, so I told them I would move myself. They agreed to do the investment if I took the leadership and we started looking for grass farms in another region further north where we could find cheap land with degraded pastures that we could transform into productive land to grow crops,” Carla says. “I see that as a noble thing to do, changing poor land to produce food and to provide job opportunities and build communities.”

Carla found a cattle farm in the frontier land of the Mato Grosso region that she says had “never seen a penny of investment for 20 years”.

“I went to our own farm and asked whether any workers would migrate with me. I didn’t expect anyone to come because the new farm was 600 km from the nearest airport and 70 km from a supermarket.” However, some did follow, and Carla also began recruiting a local workforce around the farm.

In contrast to her parents’ start-up difficulties with wind-erosion, in Mato Grosso they battled with low-lying, flood-prone land. They made use of new technology like drones and geo mapping software to identify deficient soils and other problem areas on the farm. They then installed a new drainage system to create seedbeds that would sustain crop production. Other innovations used, include precision fertiliser applications and measures to reduce pesticide spray drift.

Protecting the environment is a huge part of modern-day farming in Brazil, says Carla. Environmental legislation has tightened over the past decade after worldwide criticism of extensive deforestation to grow crops and produce cattle, but, Carla explains, since 2004, a government-backed drive has seen deforestation rates slashed by 82.5% as more land is protected. Of Brazil’s 851m hectare land mass, 236m ha is used for agriculture with farmers actively protecting a further 94m ha of land. On-farm support is also now linked to environmental regulations. “We have strict training on aspects like pesticide application right down to how we wash our sprayers after use,” Carla says.

Carla believes Brazilian farmers should be given more credit for boosting production by improving existing farmland, as she has done, rather than consuming a wider area through deforestation. Since 1980 the area used for all cereal, vegetable and oilseed production has only risen by about 15% from about 40m ha to 46m ha. In that same period, she says, the combined production tonnage for these commodities has more than trebled from about 52mt to 160mt. However, she adds, major challenges which have dogged farmers’ efforts remain.

With two cropping periods a year, grain production in Brazil is a race against time, hampered by poor infrastructure, huge transport costs, high interest rates and hefty taxes, she explains. Taxes rates are 33.9% - one of the world’s highest when compared to Gross Domestic Product. Investing in new technology or land improvement is also held back by borrowing rates of about 10%.

The cost of logistics – obtaining spare parts to keep the wide range of machinery moving and transporting goods - is her particular focus. On transport costs she uses an example of corn from Mato Grosso State attracting a price of R$500/t at the port 1,500 km away, but the freight costs are R$220/t or 44% of the price.

Costs for maintenance are equally high and time lost waiting for spare parts to be delivered costs what she describes as an absurd amount of money. To help tackle that problem Carla has embarked on a Nuffield Scholarship to focus on practical solutions to streamline machinery management across the services and supply chain.

“With my scholarship, I will look for cost-effective technological solutions for grain production businesses and bring efficiencies at an industry level. They cannot be expensive and complicated, just effective and in the language the operator understands," she says in a Nuffield interview.

"My aim is to bring real solutions to my country, and contribute in a meaningful way to my sector. I participate in many ‘new generation’ farming groups in Brazil, so the new perspectives and knowledge I gather through the Nuffield network can be quickly disseminated and absorbed within our sector to turn this research into a reality," she adds.

“Adama UK was proud to sponsor Oxford Farming Conference 2018 where Carla Mayara Borges shared her inspiring story”

Pioneering Brazilian grower Carla Mayara Borges
Pioneering Brazilian grower Carla Mayara Borges
Harvest at Mato Grosso
Harvest at Mato Grosso
Creating a thriving arable business
Creating a thriving arable business
Of Brazil’s 851m hectare land mass, 236m ha is used for agriculture with farmers actively protecting a further 94m ha of land
Of Brazil’s 851m hectare land mass, 236m ha is used for agriculture with farmers actively protecting a further 94m ha of land
Carla grows two crops in the same year, one of soybeans and the other of cotton, sorghum or corn - a feat achieved by 75% of soybean growers in Brazil
Carla grows two crops in the same year, one of soybeans and the other of cotton, sorghum or corn - a feat achieved by 75% of soybean growers in Brazil
Expansion of agriculture in Brazil
Expansion of agriculture in Brazil