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Brazil breadbasket teeters with economic meltdown
Associated Press

Antonio Gallego checks soybeans that are being loaded into a truck in his farm in Fatima do Sul, Brazil last month.


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A truck loaded with soybeans drives past a corn plantation in Maracaju, Brazil, last month.


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A truck loaded with soybeans drives past a corn plantation in Maracaju, Brazil, last month.


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Published: 4/18/2009 12:02 AM

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FATIMA DO SUL, Brazil - A year ago, Brazil's breadbasket saw what resembled a gold rush as farmers scrambled to increase acreage amid record demand for soy. Today, much of the region is on its knees, victim of a double whammy of a financial crisis and a punishing drought.

Standing in his field of withered soy, Antonio Gallego oversees a few farm hands harvesting a crop that grew to just 8 inches (20 centimeters) instead of the normal 6 feet (2 meters). He says he'll lose $40 per acre ($100 per hectare) on this year's investment.

"This year is just a total loss, and the only thing we can say about the future is that it's uncertain," said Gallego, 43, son of the first settlers to farm this little-developed corner of Brazil a few decades ago. "I can't increase acreage because there's no credit. But if I decrease, I can't pay the bills."

Early last year, high oil prices, low food reserves and growing consumer demand in developing nations sent food prices soaring, causing riots from Haiti to Pakistan. As in other agricultural regions, Brazilian farmers and ranchers drove to increase production, raking in huge profits as soy and other commodity prices skyrocketed.

Today, grain and beef prices have plummeted. And with sharply reduced foreign orders for Brazilian iron ore, steel and automobiles, Latin America's largest economy could fall into recession this year.

In this sun-baked town with no traffic lights, where tractors and harvesters rumble down the main drag, most farmers say they are losing money on yields from 20 percent to 60 percent below normal.

After the financial crisis hit last fall, the area suffered its worst drought in more than 20 years, affecting three of Brazil's five top grain-producing states and large swaths of grain-producing land in Argentina and Paraguay. There was no rain for two months.

Some families who have farmed fields for 30 years fear they will lose their land. Tight credit is making it harder for most to buy seeds, fertilizer and machinery.

"Some of them are going to go broke," said Eduardo Riedel, vice president of the leading agribusiness industry association in Mato Grosso do Sul state, a seemingly endless stretch of fields and pasture bordering Paraguay and Bolivia. "The lenders are scared about lending the money, there's loss of income, and the middle rural class isn't investing."

Demand has plunged for Brazilian beef, coffee and soy, which is used worldwide as animal feed and as a key additive in cereal, pasta and other processed foods. The credit crunch also has made it difficult for importing countries to get loans to buy food.

The nation's current soy harvest is expected to generate 58 million metric tons, down from 60 million last year. Meanwhile, beef exports for January and February totaled 171 million metric tons, down sharply from 230 million metric tons shipped abroad for the same period in 2008.

The price of milk farmers in Fatima do Sul get from dairies since the crisis hit has dropped to 22 cents per quart (liter), below the production cost of 27 cents per quart (liter).

And dozens of slaughterhouses hit by the credit crunch in recent months have shut their doors in both Mato Grosso do Sul and the neighboring agricultural powerhouse state of Mato Grosso, throwing thousands of meat cutters out of work.

Farmers in the U.S., Canada and Europe are hurting as well from sharply lower prices for soy, corn and beef. But experts say they generally don't hold as much debt as their Brazilian counterparts, giving them greater leeway to ride out the crisis. And many benefit from government subsidies the Brazilians don't get.

"American farmers are perceiving Brazil to be less of a competitive threat than they used to," said Mike Woolverton, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.