From machete to machine in Brazil's cane fields

Fri Aug 20, 2010 10:13am EDT
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By James Matthews

PIRACICABA, Brazil (Reuters) - For nearly five centuries, the classic image of sugar production in Brazil has been one of workers setting cane fields on fire and then descending on the crop with their machetes for harvest.

No longer.

More than half of the cane in Brazil's main sugar-producing area of Sao Paulo state was harvested using machines during the 2009/10 season, a historic first that portends greater efficiency in coming years. The shift is occurring so quickly that some producers face a four-month waiting list to get the right equipment.

The transition, driven by both increased competition and tougher Brazilian environmental laws, has been a boon for multinational equipment manufacturers supplying the world's leading producer of sugar and the second largest ethanol producer after the United States.

"Brazil's market is hot," said Jose Emilio dos Santos, manager of Tratorag Comercio e Representacao, a John Deere dealer based in Piracicaba, the heart of the center-south's cane growing region in Sao Paulo state. "Many producers are looking to buy a new machine harvester."

Last year, Cosan, the world's largest sugar and ethanol producer, spent 30.5 million reais ($17.3 million) on mechanization and expects to train between 180 and 200 harvester operators per year for the next four years, said Luis Carlos Veguin, the company's human resources director.

Adoption of the technology by big firms has forced many smaller producers to follow suit. In the first six months of 2010, 3,186 harvesters of all types were sold in Brazil, up from 478 in the same period of 2006, according to figures from Anfavea, the vehicle manufacturer's association.

It's not just companies that are benefiting from the switch. Izaura Freitas Souza, 39, has wielded a machete in the sugar cane harvest since she was a 15 year old and once almost sliced off her big toe in the fields.   Continued...