The main challenges of being a farmer: an overview of the evolution and future of the career
Anyone who is a farmer and entrepreneur knows that the sector poses several challenges that, if not overcome, can lead to a loss of competitiveness in the market.
Despite occupying a privileged position in the country’s economic participation, agriculture does not spare the rural entrepreneur, who needs to have a lot of courage and strategic intelligence to guarantee that his crops produce.
With that in mind, we have prepared this article to clearly draw a panoramic scenario of how agricultural activity is going in Brazil and present the main challenges the local farmers face.
We hope to promote reflection and discussion on the directions we need to take towards a more sustainable agribusiness.
A historical overview of agriculture in Brazil
The emergence of agriculture in the country dates back to the beginning of colonization. The slave labour base advanced the agricultural economy, having its core of development in the Northeast region, around the 16th century, in extensions of hereditary land known as Captaincies of Brazil.
The monoculture was restricted to sugarcane, although other less expressive crops could be found. In the 18th century, the first coffee plantations began, which became the main national product from the 19th century onward.
The coffee production era in Brazil represents the start of a new stage in the history of the national economy, and is generally identified with one of the main boosters of the country’s development.
With the economic crisis at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a need to diversify economic activity in the country, with the intensification of work in industries and the appreciation of other types of plantations.
A plantation that showed great expressiveness in the national and international scenario was soybean. According to data from Embrapa, in the 2016/17 harvest, for example, soybean crops covered a total of 33.89 million hectares, with production exceeding 113 million tons. Today, Brazil is the second largest soy producer in the world, after the United States.
The performance of agriculture makes the sector one of the most important for the Brazilian economy. According to IBGE, agribusiness is largely responsible for keeping the national GDP growing. The segment had an increase of 13%, while other areas, such as commerce and construction, had an unsatisfactory to negative performance (+1.8% and -5%, respectively).
Despite this favorable scenario, Brazilian farmers still face several obstacles to grow their business. Let’s check them out below.
What are the main challenges for the farmer on and off the field?
We can divide the challenges of Brazilian agribusiness into six important basis.
Finding skilled labour in the field is a major dilemma in the sector. Firstly, there is the constant social phenomenon of migration of the rural population to big cities, drastically reducing the amount of available workforce.
Second, there is a lack of technical training for workers. Increasingly, agribusiness adopts new tools and sophisticated agricultural machinery to increase productivity, but the human capital found is often not able to operate such technologies.
When we talk about competitiveness, we are not just referring to internal competition. If Brazil does not continue to expand its investments in the sector, it could be left behind on the international scene, overtaken by countries that do not have an agricultural tradition, but that are already emerging in foreign trade, such as Malaysia and Indonesia with rubber, and Vietnam with the coffee plantations.
Is it possible to increase productivity without increasing the availability of agricultural land? This is also one of the great challenges for the farmer, since the size of the planting areas has grown at much smaller scales when compared to the increase in production and demand. For example, according to Embrapa, since 1990, the extension of land planted with grains has grown by 61%, but production is up to 310% higher.
The main factor responsible for the greater productivity in a smaller area of land is, without a doubt, the technological and scientific advance, with the adoption of new practices and tools, such as those made available by precision agriculture.
In this topic, the high costs for transportation and the unfavorable conditions of Brazilian highways and ports can be listed as challenges. This obstacle in the system’s flow makes the products more expensive, harming both ends of the process: the farmer and the final consumer.
Weather conditions are an inherent concern of agricultural production, and will always be so. It turns out that when the climate in the region is constant according to what is considered normal, within the parameters of rainfall, humidity and temperature as expected, farmers are able to conduct their production with greater ease.
However, when these conditions change, with long periods of drought or rainy seasons, farmers may not be able to plan properly. The damage can be very serious, including the loss of all production.
A study conducted by FAO stated that if the rhythm of growth in food consumption continues at this current rate, by 2050 we will need 60% more food and 40% more water. Therefore, agribusiness needs to seek smarter and more efficient systems to optimize the means of production and guarantee demand for the next generations.
The challenges are not restricted to these highlighted aspects, but they are enough to cause great concern and real damage to Brazilian agriculture. Fortunately, in all cases, technology can be a great ally for the farmer.
How do technologies impact, and will they continue to affect the sector?
Although we need to produce more, this gain will hardly come with the expansion of cultivated land. It is necessary to increase production efficiency. What does that mean?
For example, a study carried out by Agência FAPESP revealed that in sugarcane plantations, efficiency was only 50%. Thus, the cultivated area produced only half of its capacity. In other words, it would take two crops of the same size to generate what only one could do under ideal conditions. How can we achieve productive efficiency?
Several technological solutions applied to the field tend to reduce production costs and overcome the challenges that arise on plantations. They optimize processes and reduce failures in various stages of production, such as fertilization, planting, irrigation, spraying, harvesting, etc.
We call this set of tools precision agriculture, which has significantly impacted agriculture around the world. Among the main technologies, we have:
- sensors: monitor plants, climate and soil to gather important information about the crop;
- GPS in agricultural machines: helps mapping the plantation to locate soil samples within the plots, for example — this resource allows generating fertility maps;
- mobility: monitoring carried out through mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, to follow up the work of the machines, access information about the crop, etc.
These are examples of technologies that have a very wide range of applications and provide the farmer with rich information for decision making.
What knowledge should the agricultural professional have to continue in the area?
These technologies demand new skills and abilities from professionals in the field. In fact, when we talk about agriculture, the practices and the necessary knowledge are very broad.
In addition to agronomy, it is important to pay attention to derived segments, from more technical areas, such as plant production and application of new technologies, to more administrative aspects, such as exports, statistics and economics.
As a result, the spectrum of professional activity continues to expand, mainly because of the advancement of technology.
Are new professions emerging with the advancement of technology? Which ones?
The main innovations are based on technology. Thus, the professions created within the agricultural activity require advanced knowledge that allows using the new tools to add value and optimize the production process.
Another major highlight is biotechnology, which consists of manipulating genes to enhance the characteristics of certain products.
Then we have the growing concern about sustainability in production, especially because of the dry season, waste generation and use of inputs in the crops.
The evolution of the means of agricultural production is inevitable. At the same time, the farmer’s challenges are also increasing. It is up to him to identify these obstacles and adopt the best practices and technologies to overcome the problems and maintain the competitiveness of their business.
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