Wallbrowns pioneer farming abroad in Brazilian countryside

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DEERFIELD, Ohio – In his office, Bill Wallbrown is all business.

At attention behind the desk, he grabs file folders, sorts their contents and punches the calculator, figuring crop acreage and yields.

His denim shirt, blue jeans and worn work boots show he’s been in the fields nearby.

The crops are coming along OK, he reports. The corn isn’t tasseled yet and is gaining height, and the soybean crop is green and growing.

Half a world away, nearly 3,000 acres of crop ground is awaiting tons of soybean seed dropped by the first passes of a new John Deere planter the Wallbrowns purchased.

Though he won’t be able to pull it himself, Wallbrown is looking forward to hearing reports on the implement and crop progress.

If all goes well, at least six members of his family will go to Mato Grosso, Brazil, next month to see the dividends of their latest venture.

The family, headed by matriarch Joan Wallbrown, and including Bill’s brother, John, and sisters, Beth and Jackie, is a local pioneer in farming abroad.

Connections. The decision to invest in a land the family had never visited – one whose red soil, ant hills as tall as people, Zebu cattle and sugar cane crop are as foreign as the Portuguese language spoken there – wasn’t hasty.

More than 15 years ago, the late Boyd Wallbrown discussed farming at an international level with his wife and children.

The idea floated in the backs of their minds for years.

Networking – John serves on the board for the Ohio Corn Growers, alongside northwestern Ohio farmer Richard Harer – led them thousands of miles from their Portage County homestead.

Harer did some missionary work in Brazil, where he met Jay Edwards, also a missionary. Edwards was a transplanted North American – the son of a Indiana farmer – who moved his family to South America in the 1970s.

To fit in with the new community in northeastern Mato Grosso, Edwards had to pick a profession. Farming came naturally.

However, the resources to acquire land and equipment in Querencia County, in the heartland of Brazil, were harder to come by.

The Harer family has been investing in Edwards’ farm since 1994, and conversations between Harer and John Wallbrown created the spark that fueled the family’s renewed interest.

A lot of thought. “We put a lot of thought into this, thinking and saying, ‘Do we want to get involved?'” Bill Wallbrown said.

The family began juggling the pros and cons in the fall of 2001, meeting and calling one another – sister Jackie lives in North Dakota – to discuss questions they’d each proposed.

“Beth and Jackie were concerned about if they were really taking down the rain forests for [farms],” Wallbrown said.

The family also questioned the country’s geography, its government, if they would be accepted by natives, and the safety and security of their investment.

At first sight. Traveling with the Harers in the spring of 2002, the family visited to explore and get answers to their questions.

“We went down not knowing what to expect. Sure you can read a lot and hear [a lot], but you still don’t know until you see it,” Wallbrown said.

The family was completely taken at first sight.

“The town was surrounded by this vast area of large fields. The beans looked so amazingly good, tall and loaded with pods,” he said.

The locals’ work ethics and progressiveness also stood out.

Before the Wallbrowns boarded the plane to head back home, they had made an offer to purchase nearly 1,900 acres of cleared and uncleared land.

Edwards and his family farm the acreage owned by both families as a unit, growing rice and nearly 3,000 acres of soybeans.

Daily work. Day-to-day operation is headed by the farm manager, Rafael, and his brother. They rely on plentiful skilled labor to keep everything moving, Wallbrown said.

“Skilled labor is a huge cost for farms here. [In the United States] we’re always looking to see how to replace people with capital. There, they’re doing the opposite,” Wallbrown said.

It’s a completely different world in the fields on Mato Grosso.

The farm lacked GPS tools until the brothers took the equipment to Rafael.

Fertilizer comes in 2,500-pound bags, is handled manually, and put on with a planter. Cleared fields are divided by windrows of burned trees.

Without multiple tractors and planters working each field, it could take days to finish anything – the Wallbrowns said it’s not uncommon for rows to be close to 2 miles long.

Paying off. From the home farm in Deerfield, Ohio, which also includes a 2.2 million bushel grain handling facility at five branches and approximately 3,500 acres of row crops, an outsider may wonder why the family would want to add one more stressor to the mix.

For the siblings, intrigued by their father’s ideas and strongly guided by their faith, it was a perfect way to help with mission work and seize a real opportunity on the frontier.

“All challenges are opportunities,” Wallbrown said. “When everybody is talking gloom and doom, that’s when the best opportunities are available. Maybe this is one of those times,” he said.

In the future. The siblings have identified a handful of major challenges, including getting a grip on the cost of production and providing enough capital to fulfill their goals.

Though they haven’t purchased any more land since fall 2002, they’re trying to make plans for the future.

Their main plan is to eventually build a grain elevator near the farm for all local farmers to use, and to help farmers do a better job of marketing their crops – one of their main goals at their Ohio-based operation as well.

Potholes along the way. They’re also studying the country’s economics and coping with the lack of transportation there.

There are no paved roads within 80 miles of the farm, and the Wallbrowns don’t expect railroad access to the town in their lifetimes.

That lack of transportation is said to be the single factor keeping North American farmers ahead of their Brazilian counterparts in soybean production and economics.

“We’ve all heard of South America surpassing us, and they have. We’ll soon hear of Brazil surpassing us, too,” said John Wallbrown.

John Wallbrown also noted Querencia County’s cleared agricultural land is growing exponentially, and the county expects 50 percent to 100 percent growth annually.

“But if demand keeps pace, it will be good for farmers worldwide,” he said.

Excited. Both brothers have operated a combine in the fields on their faraway farm, and though they were teased of breaking the machine, their excitement in farming there hasn’t wavered.

“We’d do it all over again in a heartbeat,” Bill Wallbrown said.

“We still feel there’s a tremendous future for agriculture in our area of Ohio and in the United States, but there are great opportunities abroad.

“Sure there are a lot of easier things we could be doing, but somebody needs to step out and take chances,” he said.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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