Brazilian Soybean Harvest

Andy B. forwarded this neat photo. The machines in the foreground are harvesting beans while the ones in back are preparing the ground for corn planting. The photo appears to have been staged (normally the combines would advance next to each other) but it’s still impressive.

27 thoughts on “Brazilian Soybean Harvest”

  1. Cool. but are you sure it’s staged ?… In such a formation, they can follow slightly overlapping tracks without any risks of bumping into each other; and no wastage from having to keep a distance.

  2. Yes… and this way the entire unit wont become decisively engaged when the lead elements encounter the enemy, and a single machine gun sited in enfalade wont take out the entire formation… er… nevermind.

  3. Sylvain,

    We weren’t able to determine with certainty whether it was spontaneous or not. They do line up the combines and diskers in side by side formation, but I’ve never seen that V form in the U.S.

  4. It seems staged. If not, why would the ones in the back be so fewer? Why didn’t they start in one of the corners of the crop? Interesting, though…

  5. As to starting on one end, some of the fields in South America are so huge, (much bigger than here) that it makes more sense to begin cutting wherever your machinery happens to be. They sell alot of their crop “off the combine”, no storage, so they have the trucks waiting to load, and then run them right to the port for export, so they want to cut ASAP. It might take a whole day to drive your machinery to the end of a field, so you cut your way there instead.

  6. A picture’s worth a thousand words. And yet some still promote the archaic notion of the family farmer. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not viable in the globalized economy of the 21st century. How can a lone farmer compete against the corporate farm? He can’t. And for those of us who like to buy food on a regular basis, that’s good news because it lowers prices and improves consistency of supply.

  7. You’re right to a degree, James, but not entirely. I just got off the phone with a sole prop. farmer up in Michigan. He’s a client, has good quality land that yields above average, and he is smart because he lays off a good deal of his risk with the savvy use of options. Makes a very good living. The family farms that don’t / can’t survive are the ones on poor land who don’t manage it as a business in ALL aspects. The amazing thing is that the vast majority of farmers do not use the futures or options markets to reduce their exposure, and a lot of them that have tried to have been the victims of stupid or unscrupulous brokers. Makes me sick.

  8. Cool photo!

    Progress like this always impresses me more than some environmental nut telling people what they should do with their land. I’d guess Brazilians would pick this over jungle if they had a choice. God Bless America.

  9. I’m with Andy. Family farms are a very resilient form of economic organization. Don’t count them out yet. I had a long talk with an old German guy, my former landlord, whose family had lived in what is now Croatia for 300 or so years, but who ran away from Tito’s executioners. He was explaining to me how the Amish farms can be profitable — animals reproduce themselves for free, they can get into tight places, overhead is low, so a small cash profit plus what you grow yourself can sustain you. He said it was how he grew up and there is no reason it can’t be viable indefinately.

  10. I think there’s selection bias here. Many family farms that fail do so because they are badly run (too much debt or the owners simply make bad business decisions), not because they are small. That smallness is no barrier to success is shown by the persistence of successful small farmers, such as Andy’s client and a few that I’ve heard of, who are notably shrewd businessmen. Meanwhile, the set of big farms probably consists of (a few) small farms that grew because they were run well and farms that are owned by big businesses that are run well (that is, like real businesses).

    The classic tale of woe of the small farmer involves 1) borrowing a lot of money at high rates after a runup in crop prices, 2) buying a lot of land and equipment, 3) failing to hedge against production and weather risks, 4) going bust when crop prices subsequently decline and 5) blaming the failure on acts of God, speculators, etc.

    Farming is a business like any other. Problems arise when people treat it emotionally.

  11. Hmmm, very impressive.

    But I’m with Incognito on this one. It would be much better if the entire surface of Brazil were like this.

    I believe there are still areas where they’re clinging to the silly notion of sustainable agriculture. Areas where they still actually have trees. How wasteful is that!?

    The beauty of the system portrayed in your photo is that even if there’s a drought and the soya crop fails, they still manage record harvests of dust. Clever lot, these farmers.

  12. Let me give you a little history DaveVH,
    Back when Nixon was in office, Brazil and Argentina were flies on the back of an elephant in terms of their agricultural production. When Carter embargoed Russi over the Afghanistan issue, Japan and a group of International Agribusiness concerns fronted the cash to increase South American production. They had not only perceived future demand, but did not like the idea of the world having one option for grain imports, that being the U.S., and that at any moment we would be willing to use our Ag production as a weapon. Now fast-forward 20 years. We had a RECORD domestic soybean crop headed for the bin in June of last year, until it got hot and dry in July and August, and a few trillion aphids attacked. In six weeks, our crop went from a comfortable 3 billion bushels to an extremely tight 2.4 billion bushels. That STILL was not a huge problem, due to those investments in the 80’s and the resulting picture you see. South America now produces MORE soybeans than the U.S. annually. Unfortunately, S.A. also got slammed with a huge weather problem, and their 2004 production went from an expected 3.6 billion bushels to under 3.3 billion, resulting in beans prices roughly doubling in the last eight months. Now here’s the kicker: In the 70’s, soybean usage was basically confined to animal feed and a smidge of human consumption, with the leftover soybean oil getting some small use in foodstuffs. Today, we turn bean oil into bio-diesel fuel, vegetable oils have supplanted animal fats in nearly all our food, and as livestock has increased with world population and its feed requirements, animal feed demand has exploded. If we actually pass an energy bill next year, (which is something all the greens want, I do too), expect bio-diesel use to skyrocket along with ethanol, which is made from corn. It is a physical impossibility to meet world needs through feel-good techniques like total organic farming and “sustainable agriculture”, whatever that really means, since domestically we have been able to sustain our food production despite all of these heretofore unheard of uses. It’s really more of a zero-sum game than most realize. You want to cut back South American agriculture? Then come up with a wind-powered car, furnace, water-heater, electric plant, and while you are at it, STOP EATING!

  13. Some note about Brazil’s agriculture.

    Every year Brazil is breaking records of production. Agribusinness is the only branch of brazilian economy that is growing today.

    In spite of this … we have in our Constituition a silly notion of “social use of the land” which inspires today a Maoist social movement to invade productive lands (like this on the photo) claiming for land reform. But they don’t want lands in far regions, or uncolonized ones, they want land in regions where that picture was took.

  14. Thanks Free, you raise an interesting point. There is also a provision in the Constitution that forbids any company from making “excessive” profits from their business. There is currently a major problem occurring in Brasil with farmers cancelling pricing contracts they had made to sell their crops, because the prices today are so much higher than when they agreed to the contract terms, and citing this article in the Constitution as their basis for taking such action. How the hell can anyone expect to transact business or transfer risk under such circumstances?

  15. Ok, back to serious. A buddy of mine was an environmental econ major. If I remember his arguments correctly, the thing with organic farming is that it takes 4 times as much land to yield the same crop as it does if you use fertilizers, pesticides, etc. So if you look at the sum effect, organic farming is more harmful to the land.

  16. The US agriculture subsidy programs are the biggest cause of economic problems for farmers. They drive up the price of the most expensive input (land) and reduce the price of the commodity product (because of surplus production).

    Ending farm subsidies would do more for the long term economic health and environmental sustainability of farming then any other policy.

  17. Andy B,

    You said

    “If we actually pass an energy bill next year, (which is something all the greens want, I do too), expect bio-diesel use to skyrocket along with ethanol, which is made from corn.”

    It is amazing how the use of ethanol skyrockets when its usage is mandated by law and its cost is subsidized by the government. Ethanol is a net energy sink, requiring more energy input then it produces. Ethanol usage is nothing but a big old pork barrel gift to ADM and the corn farmers.


  18. TJIT,
    I didn’t really mean to start a thread on the practicality of ethanol, but as long as you bring it up, as an oxygenate additive, I think ethanol is a preferable alternative to MTBE. It is a net energy drain when you consider the processing costs, but I know that when those costs are calculated, they include items all the way down to the trucking of the corn to the ethanol plant, so I am not sure that those cost-benefit numbers are fair. I do know that two big by-products of ethanol production are quantities of nitrogen (which get re-captured) and DDG (distillers dry grain) which is used as an animal feed additive, and I do not believe the value of those products are included in the analysis. As for the subsidies, those are not direct payments from Treasury to ethanol concerns, rather, they are tax break incentives involving no cash flow. Is it pork? Maybe, but at least you get a tangible product out the back end, and if ethanol and bio-diesel can be made to replace the farm bill eventually, then it’s a net gain.

  19. Andy B,

    You ignore the huge environmental and substantial energy costs of raising the crops in the first place. You ignore the higher fuel costs and supply disruptions caused by mandated uses of this oxygenate or that oxygenate. You ignore the blending and transportation problems caused by the use of ethanol. The air quality establishment needs to get out of designing gasoline. They need to set pollution standards for gasoline to meet and allow the refiners and chemical engineers who know what they are doing meet those standards.

    As it exists now bio diesel and ethanol are the policy equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. When and if it is possible for them to environmentally and economically compete with petroleum products the refiners will use them.

  20. Andy B

    I never said lets stop farming, most of my friends and relatives farm. This has let me see first hand just how much economic and environmental destruction farm policies can cause.

    What I am saying is do not use government policy to cause farming to occur in an environmentally destructive, non sustainable manner just to benefit Archer-Daniels-Midland while harming consumers.

  21. Andy B,

    I believe you are enthusiastic about ethanol because you are only getting information put forward by those who have the most to gain financially from mandated ethanol usage. I think if you knew the actual costs of ethanol usage you would not support it. So below are a few points from a paper Cornell’s David Pimentel did on ethanol production.

    Regarding energy usage

    Adding up the energy costs of corn production and its conversion to ethanol, 131,000 Btu are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 Btu. “Put another way,” Pimentel said, “about 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol. Every time you make 1 gallon of ethanol, there is a net energy loss of 54,000 Btu.”

    Regarding environmental costs

    Most economic analyses of corn-to-ethanol production overlook the costs of environmental damages, which Pimentel says should add another 23 cents per gallon. “Corn production in the U.S. erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be reformed, and irrigating corn mines groundwater 25 percent faster than the natural recharge rate of ground water. The environmental system in which corn is being produced is being rapidly degraded. Corn should not be considered a renewable resource for ethanol energy production, especially when human food is being converted into ethanol,” Pimentel said.

    Regarding consumer costs

    The approximately $1 billion a year in current federal and state subsidies (mainly to large corporations) for ethanol production are not the only costs to consumers, the Cornell scientist observes. Subsidized corn results in higher prices for meat, milk and eggs because about 70 percent of corn grain is fed to livestock and poultry in the United States. Increasing ethanol production would further inflate corn prices, Pimentel said, noting: “In addition to paying tax dollars for ethanol subsidies, consumers would be paying significantly higher food prices in the marketplace.”

    My summary

    Making ethanol is an energy sink, that is environmentally destructive, non renewable, and bad for consumers. Which are four facts ethanol proponents don’t want you to know.

  22. There’s no law preventing people from using ethanol as fuel if they want to. Yet the main advocates of ethanol fuel are not consumers but people who are in the ethanol business.

    If it doesn’t make sense for consumers to buy unsubsidized ethanol at current prices, we shouldn’t subsidize it. And if oil prices reach a level where ethanol is an attractive substitute, subsidies aren’t needed.

    Now how do I get a refund from ADM?

  23. Note to self: Next time you feel yourself getting directed toward an argument you didn’t make, get back on topic.

    Pardon my wise-ass previous response (lets stop farming), I was just too tired to expound on anything. I have no axe to grind vis-a-vis ethanol or bio-diesel, however, I have seen parts of Pimentel’s studies, and I also see his name brought up in every anti-ethanol article. In fact, his name is the only one I ever see cited as far as scientific research is concerned, which seems quite strange to me. I would think that someone else somehere would be making a factual, scientific case against ethanol if it were so horrible, but Pimentel keeps popping up. So I went a little further and found that of ten seperate studies done between 1989 and 2002 on the Net Energy Value of ethanol, Pimentel’s were the only ones to arrive at such a radically negative number. Of those ten studies, the NEV’s from worst to best are: -33562, -33517, -8438, -4000, +16193, +18154, +21,105, +22,500, +29826, +30,589, with the first two coming from Pimentel. I’ll leave it to you all to figure the mean, standard devs, etc., but you can see what I’m getting at here. Even more interesting is that between two of his studies, (1991 & 2001), he inputs a higher bushel per acre yield for corn in 2001 and actually finds the NEV getting LOWER over ten years. I am certainly not an expert in the field of distilling, but I find it incredible that ethanol production has become less efficient in the last decade.
    Pimentel writes: “Corn should not be considered a renewable resource for ethanol energy production, especially when human food is being converted into ethanol” and: that ethanol production “amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning” but he also states : ” about 70 percent of corn grain is fed to livestock and poultry in the United States”
    well what is it? Human food or livestock feed? I’ll tell you, it’s all livestock feed, and the bulk of the remaining 30% gets exported for foreign animal feed demand. We’re not “burning” any human food. This sums up the studies:1991] David Pimentel, Cornell University (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-13. 1991) conducted a study which has gotten him labeled as a persistent critic of ethanol. His claim is “that it takes about 70% more energy to grow corn and make ethanol from it than goes into the ethanol”. The DOE page claims his study has faults, namely that he uses old data from old methodologies, and doesn’t account for co-products produced as a byproduct of ethanol production. The latter are animal feeds produced from the residues left over. Regarding subsidy levels, how about these numbers?: Estimates of federal oil subsidies in the U.S. range from $15 billion to $66 billion a year

    · $66 billion annually, according to the Florida Energy Extension Service

    · $34.4 to $57.6 billion annually, according to an International Center for Technological Assessment

    · $15.7 to $35.2 billion annually, according to a report compiled for Greenpeace

    On the subject of an energy bill, I stated that I want to see an energy bill pass next year. I think that in order to get that accomplished, the topic of an overall energy policy will have to be explored, if not fully fleshed out. I think this is long overdue. Domestic energy needs are perpetually growing, and we need to address how that growth will be met. Wind, hydro, fossil, nuclear, renewable, they all will be needed. If you have a copy of the latest Pimentel study in its entirety, I’d love to see it. I would like to look at his methodologies, and I could not find a copy anywhere.

  24. Andy B

    Looks like you have put your sense of curiosity to good work and found some interesting papers on ethanol and energy usage, thanks for the information. An open mind and a good sense of curiosity are two very good assets to have.

    For what its worth I would prefer to eliminate the subsidies for oil and gas production instead of match them with subsidies for renewable sources. Here are a couple of articles by an engineer that describe how much energy the US consumes and how various alternative sources of energy compare with coal, and petroleum products.

    Denbeste alternative energy

    Denbeste energy dependence

    Petroleum production is expensive, difficult and has not returned very good financial results for most oil companies when their stock prices are compared to other types of companies. If renewable energy ever has the capacity to replace an economically viable amount of petroleum production big oil will probably own / manage a significant portion of the alternative energy supply. Unfortunately the laws of thermodynamics are pretty tough so it may be long time before we see this occur.

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