Paulista moves to Mossoró, in Rio Grande do Norte, to grow melon; today, it produces 250 thousand tons per harvest and supplies the European market
Luiz Roberto Barcelos, largest melon producer and exporter in Brazil (disclosure / Disclosure)
Rural producer Luiz Roberto Barcelos, 55, remembers the first time he tried a melon. He was five years old and lived in Ribeirão Preto, in the interior of São Paulo, with his family. “My mom came home with that round, green fruit and I fell in love,” she says. Today, Barcelos is the largest melon producer and exporter in Brazil. It supplies a good part of the European market alone.
His farm, Agrícola Famosa, produces more than 1 million melons a day. Each harvest, 250 thousand tons of fruit are harvested – most are exported to countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Last year, sales reached 500 million reais. “We are going to grow even more,” says Barcelos.
The fruit’s new destination is China. At the end of last year, the country approved the importation of Brazilian melons, after talks with agriculture minister Tereza Cristina. The expectation is that in the second half of the year, melon sales to China will start to take off. “Then, we will double production,” says Barcelos. He is already preparing to expand his farm. “I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
Agriculture has always been part of the life of Barcelos, who belongs to a family of coffee producers in the interior of São Paulo. “I always liked to move the earth,” he says. The family property, created more than a hundred years ago, has been divided among the heirs over time. Barcelos was not very excited about running the business and decided to study in São Paulo, where he went to law school. “I didn’t think the field was going to pull me back, as it ended up happening,” he says.
Barcelos got a job as a lawyer in a foreign trade company for agricultural products. It didn’t take long for the longing for agriculture to hit harder. He learned that a 4,800-hectare farm in Mossoró, in Rio Grande do Norte, was for sale and decided to close a deal. The region, with a warm and sunny climate practically all year round, is considered ideal for growing fruits such as melons, which need a lot of sun.
The producer did not think twice – he brought the family together and soon moved to Mossoró. “At the time, my wife was pregnant with our second child and we were not sure what our life in a new land would be like,” he says. Today, the farm covers 30,000 hectares and is expected to expand even further until the beginning of next year.
So that production could grow, Barcelos invested in advanced irrigation systems, in which the ideal amount of water is distributed in every inch of the land, without waste. He also studied the best strategies to achieve significant increases in productivity. One of the main techniques adopted was pollination of the crop through bees, which bring important nutrients to the melon trees.
After harvesting, the remains of vegetation that remain in the soil are sent to the composting system to be transformed into compost. “We are very concerned with sustainability, which ends up providing productivity gains and it is important to position ourselves properly abroad,” says Barcelos.
In 2019, Brazil broke a record for fruit exports, with 1 million tonnes shipped to Europe, the Middle East, Argentina. Foreign sales totaled US $ 1 billion. Melon exports generated USD 160.4 million in 2019, 18% more than in 2018. In volume, the increase was 27%.
With exports to China, melon production and foreign sales are expected to double. Barcelos and other rural producers in the Mossoró region are already preparing for the increase in exports. “Many are acquiring more land, as we are doing,” he says.
This year, Brazilian agribusiness should break new records and increase productivity. The activity is expected to account for 24% of Brazilian GDP, reaching R $ 728.6 billion. “The fruit segment should perform well,” says Barcelos. “We are going to sell more melon than ever.”