Carla Mayara Borges is a third-generation grain farmer from the Mid-West of Brazil who convinced her family to take on an abandoned, unproductive farm in Mato Grosso and triple the size of their farm. Find out how she transformed the land, and with it, the neighbouring community.
I was raised on a small farm, in a very little town that until today relies on agriculture. Throughout my life, my parents prioritized education; I have studied English in the United States and went to university in Germany to study Business Management, which is my passion.
For the last decade, the farming industry in Brazil has been growing fast, driven by the Chinese demand for soybeans. My family has been part of this, using technology to increase productivity and transform degraded land into productive land.
When I graduated in 2012 I came back home to help manage the farm, which was about a third of the size it is now. After the first year, I saw the opportunity to expand, but it would mean having to start a new farm from scratch in a region 650km away. Nonetheless, I was motivated by a desire to develop something myself and make difference in people’s lives.
After some months, we found a degraded grass farm up in the state of Mato Grosso, with almost no productivity or investments, in a forgotten region of the state. I faced the challenge and moved there.
It was a low land region, meaning it was prone to flooding during the summer. To some, this would make it useless for agriculture, but not to us. Our first step was to use GPS technology to measure slope of the area, and plan a drainage system for the farm, so we could solve the problem of excessive water in the land.
We also took soil samples of the whole area, to find out how much lime and gypsum we had to use to correct the acidity of the soil. We used equipment that applied these minerals at different rates, depending on the needs of the soil in each part of the land. We also developed maps of the different types of soils we had on the farm (some areas contained silt, others clay and gravel). Having different soils in the same area made us look for solutions that would enable the plants to grow.
During our first year, we faced lots of problems in the fields. We had problems with nitrogen fixation – our plantations looked very yellow. Also, the gravel spots made it difficult for the plants to emerge because of the of the hot weather. So, in the second year, we used drones and a plane equipped with a camera to take pictures of our first field of soybeans to detect the problems. We started using rice, millet and pasture crops to create a cover, and avoid problems of plant raising due to the silty soil and heat. Planting these crops also improved the microbiology of the land. We also used a machine that enabled us to apply microbial inoculants directly to planting rows, to improve the fixation of nitrogen.
We have now also invested in equipment that plants seeds and applies fertilizer at a variable rate, depending on the type of the soil . We have a local weather station at the farm to help us decide when to start planting and when to stop. Having big, high-tech machinery for planting and harvesting has been critical for this farm, since we have a harsh rainy season that can make us lose our yields if we are not quick to plant and harvest at the right time.
One of our latest investments has made us the first farmers in Brazil to buy a spraying technology called WEEDIT that has sensors allowing it to only spray weeds, vastly reducing the amount of the product sprayed.
We also use technology and software to run operations for the three farms. We use the cloud to centralize all documentation, software to centralize our finances and control our stocks and other agricultural inputs, we even use online groups to make the purchase of machinery parts easier. Our most recent investment is in an app to improve the maintenance management of our machinery fleet, which is also one of my topics of research at Nuffield.
We now are farming 4,000 hectares in this unit. My main inspiration to expand is to transform this poor region, with almost no employment and doomed to underdevelopment, into a region with opportunities they never saw before, through such a noble activity as producing food. We now have 24 direct employees in this unit, with more than 40 people living there.
My daily life isn’t directly related to the production, but rather implementing good management processes to run it as professionally as we can. This involves stock management, controlling costs, human resources, dealing with environmental licenses and purchasing machinery parts. Agriculture in the Mid-West of Brazil is very competitive and you have to be very efficient to be profitable – it is also heavily regulated, so we do have to have to spend a lot of time on management.
I have of course, faced many challenges. A lack of road infrastructure, high costs of production, complicated taxes and governmental regulations, large distances from one town to another, and a lack of a qualified workforce all make farming in Brazil challenging. At the beginning, being a young women in an agricultural leadership role was also sometimes difficult, but my father always gave me space to show my work and implement my ideas, so it’s been rewarding to work with my family.
I do believe that to face these challenges, we have to seek to be a farm full of good values. We invest in high technology to be productive and control costs. We treat our employees as part of our family, teaching technical skills, sports and courses for their personal life. We take care of nature, as we preserve 30 per cent of our land and water. We invest in the community where we are, generating employment, helping schools, Indians that are in our surroundings, and investing in road maintenance.
I am very proud of being a Brazilian farmer, as I do believe Brazil has some of the best practices in sustainability in the world’s agriculture.
Carla will be speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference this week. Follow #OFC18 for live updates.