Bonopolis, Brazil – Phil Corzine, a fourth-generation farmer from Illinois, is living the American dream, but it’s happening on dusty soy farms in the interior of Brazil, rather than the cornfields of Iowa.
Corzine, 53, owns or manages seven farms in Goias and Tocantins states in the agricultural heartland of Brazil.
He started farming in Brazil in 2004, and now his company, South American Soy, has 100 foreign investors from the US, is worth about $6m, and has started to turn a profit the past two years.
“I could have never dreamed I would be down here managing a farm in Brazil. It’s quite a leap from where I started,” Corzine told Al Jazeera, while watching tractors off in the distance churn up soil preparing the land for a soybean season.
For Corzine, the difficulties of navigating Brazil’s bureaucracy and the poor infrastructure are offset by cheap and plentiful farmland that is a fraction of the cost of the US.
A productive, sought-after piece of farmland in the US sells between $12,000 and $15,000 an acre, Corzine said, while a comparable piece of land in Brazil costs between $500 and $1,500 per acre.
“I can buy a lot more land down here with a lot less money,” Corzine said. “For example, a 5,000-acre track of farm pasture with sufficient rainfall for soybeans is hard to find for sale in the US right now. And that is what I have down here in Brazil, and there is a lot more of it available here. So it’s price and availability that drives what we are doing.”
Foreign sales questioned
With soy prices soaring and a lingering drought in the US, farmers like Corzine are looking at places like Brazil to add new land. But they are facing new challenges, as Brazil debates restricting the amount of farmland foreigners can purchase.
In August 2010, Brazil’s attorney general issued a re-interpretation of a 1971 law – which was never enforced – that would limit sales of farmland to foreigners to “50 modules” – roughly equal to 5,000 hectares or 12,000 acres.
The decision called for strict enforcement of the law, saying foreigners could not own more than 25 per cent of any municipality. No more than 10 per cent of a municipality could be owned by foreigners of the same nationality, and the same rules should also be applied to Brazilian agricultural companies with more than 50 per cent foreign capital.
Recommendations by the attorney general have been slowly moving through congressional committees, and are yet to be fully resolved.
In the meantime, most officials at local offices that legally register and process documents for land transfers, called cartorios, are worried about legal ambiguities and have either stopped working with foreigners or else are slowing the process down.
On Friday, the Brazilian government’s official newspaper published a framework set of guidelines that will require foreigners or foreign companies with authorisation to work in Brazil to provide documentation justifying the amount of land they want to purchase. The new framework will also allow up to seven different government agencies to analyse land purchases by foreigners.
The entire issue has generated a debate in Brazil about how much land should be in the hands of foreigners.
Gerson Teixeira, president of the Brazilian Association of Agrarian Reform and an adviser on farm issues to many members of congress, supports restrictions and says the Brazilian government has no accurate records on exactly how much Brazilian land is owned by foreigners. An ongoing nationwide audit of land records should be completed later this year, he said.
It’s generally believed that about 1.5 per cent of Brazil’s total territory is owned by foreigners, but Teixeira believes that the audit will show that number is significantly higher.
“For Brazil, it’s not only an issue of national sovereignty, but it’s also about the important position Brazil has in terms of agricultural potential at a time when there is a high risk of global food insecurity,” Teixeira told Al Jazeera from Brasilia. “So the issue of foreigners owning land has to be seen within this broader context. Foreigners are welcome to invest in Brazil, it’s just an issue of us knowing who is buying what land and where, and putting reasonable restrictions. Other countries do the same thing.”
Rolando Viera, a special adviser to the attorney general, told Reuters last year that after the 2008 global food shortage Brazil decided agricultural land is “a fundamental strategic asset”.
But Kory Melby, an American who specialises in farm tours and consulting for foreigner farmers and investors looking to buy land, says the restrictions being suggested will only hurt Brazil’s productivity.
“So long as food is being produced and jobs created, foreigners should be allowed to invest to their maximum efficiency,” Melby said during a recent interview in Goiana, Brazil where he has lived for nearly 10 years. “If it’s land speculation, it should be cooled off. But if it’s land being put into production for the good of everybody, don’t put up an arbitrary barrier to foreigners.”
As a devastating drought sweeps through the agriculture lands of the US Midwest, stoking fears of food shortages and price fluctuations in the coming months, other agricultural producing countries are reassessing the wisdom of allowing foreigners to hold land. At the same time, international investors see farmland in developing countries as a potential growth area.
US crops in a poor state
“The debate about land in the hands of foreigners in happening all over the world, in all of the key agricultural frontier countries,” said Mark Horn, an independent agribusiness consultant based in Brasilia. “Laws restricting land purchases by foreigners have been recently passed in Argentina and Uruguay, the discussions are happening in Australia and Ukraine. We went through the same thing in the US as well.”
A decade ago, the majority of foreign agricultural money coming into Brazil was from a relatively small to medium-sized farmers like Corzine. In the past few years, however, cash has been pouring in from foreign hedge funds, private equity, and mutual fund firms in New York and Europe who are now the key foreign investors in developing country agricultural markets.
In 2010, $14bn was invested by global private-sector investment in agriculture, and the figure was expected to triple by 2015, according to an OECD study.
Exactly how much of that foreign money flowed into Brazil in the past few years is not clear, but Melby estimates it’s “billions of dollars”.
Horn said in the past two years he has been contacted by several international investment funds looking to purchase agricultural land in four frontier markets – which includes Brazil – with initial investments of $25m to $100m.
“I was at a conference in New York, standing room only, and I heard about a Scandinavian nurses’ pension fund that was looking to invest $300m as a first step into the agricultural lands market,” Horn said. “The quantity of money on the table creates a very interesting situation in a place like Brazil.”
The worry for Melby and others is that tightening foreign land ownership controls could slow investment at a time when Brazil’s economy is growing at a meagre 1.5 per cent.
Notably, Brazil’s most influential farm lobby, the National Confederation of Agriculture, opposes any restrictions, partly out of worry it would choke investment to the agricultural sector as a whole.
And agriculture is big business in Brazil, accounting for 37 per cent of all exports, 37 per cent of all jobs, and 23 per cent of Brazil’s $2.3tn GDP, according to Homero Pereira, a congressman from Mato Grosso, one of the country’s most important agricultural states.
As for Corzine, in the broader scope of farming and investment in Brazil, his company is still a small player, owning, renting or operating 4,753 hectares – just under the legal limit for foreigners as it stands now – and just a fraction of the 50.8 million total hectares of cultivated agricultural production land in Brazil.
As he walked through the dirt of one of his farms one recent afternoon, he remained bullish on Brazil’s prospects.
“Brazil is probably the best place in the world right now to add additional farmlands and the world needs commodities right now, and this is a great place for it to happen,” Corzine said. “But the government has got to figure this out because foreign investors will only wait so long before moving on to another place.”
Soon thereafter, Corzine received an email on his phone from a farming buddy in the US who said the drought this season was tough, and he wanted to chat about buying farmland in Brazil.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel