By Mark Gleason
Iowa State University Extension
I recently visited a colleague in the southernmost tip of Brazil, next door to Uruguay. The Brazilian state in that region, Rio Grande do Sul, is a far cry from the general U.S. notion of Brazil. In fact, parts of Rio Grande do Sul look more like Western Europe than the tropics.
It’s no accident that this region was heavily settled by Germans and Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, since it resembled their homelands in many ways. This ethnic heritage endures in the names of the cities and the surnames of the population. The crops the settlers brought with them have also become part of the Brazilian landscape.
The hilly regions north of the capital city, Porto Alegre, are centers of grape production and wine making. Thousands of acres are devoted to vineyards – both on overhead trellises in the traditional European style, and on modern vertical training systems. Most of the grapes go to wine, both red and white types.
We toured a huge family-owned winery, Miolo, that exports all over the world, including to the U.S. Brazilian wineries, like those in Iowa and elsewhere in the United States, have figured out that they can harvest additional profits from agri-tourism, both from paid tours and wine sales to visitors. Parts of Rio Grande do Sul are starting to resemble Napa Valley or the Finger Lakes in featuring wine tours as well as high-end dining and lodging for tourists.
Not surprisingly, Brazilian wine stores are dominated by Brazilian brands, along with Chilean and Argentinean offerings. A few European labels were evident, but U.S wines were absent.
A bigger surprise, at least to me, was the immense acreage of apple orchards. One county alone contains more than 50,000 acres of apples – all owned by a dozen families. The largest orchard exceeded 5,000 acres. In the United States, such an orchard would be among the largest in the country. These “fazendas” (large farms) were established in the 1980s by wealthy Brazilian industrialists, and feature state-of-the-art, high-density plantings (trees spaced just 2 to 3 feet apart in rows).
Apple orchards are not part of most Americans’ idea of Brazil. But at altitudes of nearly 3,000 ft above sea level, the subtropical climate is just barely cool enough to allow apples to set fruit and grow. Some growers have also added peaches and plums to their crop mix.
Our main interest in this tour was not wine tasting and apple sampling, but fruit diseases. Rio Grande do Sul’s climate is considerably warmer and wetter than Iowa’s, so diseases are a major concern. The sophistication of many growers’ disease management practices was impressive, however. Grape and apple growers are well organized in cooperatives.
With help from the national and state governments, several cooperatives have recently developed networks of automated weather stations to warn the members about looming disease threats. These warnings enable members to apply fungicides exactly when they are needed, so they don’t waste pesticides or money.
The diseases that plague Brazilian growers are some of the same ones that U.S growers face: scab and fruit rots on apples, and powdery mildew and downy mildew on grapes. It was encouraging to see growers there, as in the United States, changing to more environmentally friendly strategies for disease management.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Rio Grande do Sul, don’t hesitate. The countryside is exotically beautiful, the climate is moderate, and the people are welcoming. If you go, make sure to try hierba mate tea (very hot and very strong), the wine and churrascarias (barbecue restaurants). The beaches are definitely worth a visit, too.