American Farmers Try Their Luck in Brazil

Despite some hardships, they are finding both opportunity and adventure in operating large farms.

Video: U.S. Farmers in Brazil

Video: U.S. Farmers in Brazil

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LUIS EDUARDO MAGALHÃES, BRAZIL—They may not think of themselves as agents of globalization, but an adventurous cluster of U.S. farmers living in this boomtown shows that some Americans would rather join in Brazil's rapid rise as a global agricultural power than rail against it.

For a few decades, Brazil has been home to a few communities of American Mennonite farmers. But a newer wave of mostly young farmer-investors has resolved to head south for profit—and, perhaps, for the challenge of facing down obstacles more reminiscent of the American frontier of the past than of the U.S. farm belt of today. "What we're doing here isn't all that different from what my great, great-grandfather did," says Matthew Kruse, a native of Royal, Iowa.

He now directs operations on three farms totaling 23,000 acres for an outfit called Brazil Iowa Farms. He first visited Brazil in 2001, then moved here permanently in 2004. He has a Brazilian girlfriend, and out on the farms he manages between 90 and 150 workers, depending on the time of year. When he first visited rural Brazil, he says, "it seemed like we were looking at something in National Geographic. We had fallen off the planet. Now, I call it home."

Many of the Americans hail from the Midwest, where farmland has, for many, become prohibitively expensive, and opportunities to manage a big spread were sparse. If prime Midwestern farmland typically runs above $5,000 an acre, down here it is $2,000, if it's been cleared and cultivated. A few years ago, the price spread was even greater.

The gains, though always uncertain, come from both operating income and appreciating land values. John and Kelly Carroll also considered Brazilian farming a good bet. "We put every penny we had into it," says John, 27. A couple from west-central Illinois, they graduated from college in 2003, got married, and honeymooned 10 days later in Brazil.

John's 5,000-acre family farm in Illinois raises corn, soy, and hogs. Here, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, he mostly grows cotton and operates a cotton gin. Along with other investors, he's running 20,000 acres with 100 full-time employees—a distinctly bigger operation than typically seen in the Midwest.

Predictably, the move to Brazil, say the Americans, took some getting used to. John had to get through a rough bout of dengue fever, a nasty mosquito-borne illness. They also face the predictable shocks of language differences, tropical weather, and the roughness of life on distant Brazilian plains. But there is also the sheer welter of bureaucracy that the Americans encounter in getting things done—getting a driver's license, for instance. "Brazil will teach you patience," says Tyler Bruch, an Iowa farmer here since 2003.

Though some locals have complained about the Americans bidding up land prices, the Americans seem to be very welcome. "Absolutely" is how LEM's mayor, Oziel Oliveira, responded to the question. "They're turning into Brazilians."

That may be an overly enthusiastic assessment, but the Americans here seem to be making the transition all right. "I'd never been on a plane until I came down here," says Kelly Carroll, 26. "I was so shocked when I first came...My friends asked, 'What the heck are you doing down there?' " She and John live in town—as do most of the Americans—in a pleasant, three-bedroom house with a pool. They're raising a toddler, 17-month-old Audra, and live within blocks of a few other Americans. She does tax and accounting work. They miss spicy foods—and hard-to-get peanut butter and salsa. But both are now comfortable conversing in Portuguese, and they've made the adjustment. "We're not moving anytime soon," Kelly says.

Scott and Mandy Harker also chose to buy a farm outside LEM after prospects back home in Idaho looked fairly poor. In Idaho, Scott, 30, was growing potatoes, corn, hay, and wheat, but the cost of land ruled out operating a larger spread. "For us, it was like sitting on a sinking ship, waiting for it to go down," says Mandy, 25. They sold "everything" in their Idaho home, she adds.