Daniel Calaon is like most of the farmers of the fertile Argentine plains: a admirer of the outsider Javier Milei and his promise to promote the free market and rbail out the country’s beleaguered agricultural industry.
Outraged by governments that took some US$200 billion from farmers in the last two decades alone to pay for inflated budgets, To shore up the peso and control inflation, Calaón says he and almost everyone he knows who grows soybeans, wheat or corn on the pampas will vote for Milei in this month’s presidential election.
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“The more the State gets involved, the worse things go for us”Calaon, 44, said in a recent interview at a conference in Rosario, a port center in Argentina’s agricultural heartland. “Today they are above us. M“and I like Milei’s ideas.”
The agricultural sector —which represents 20% of the gross domestic product— considers the elections existential: its future is at stake, and with it the fate of South America’s second largest economy and its ability to compete with Brazil’s agricultural boom.
An unsustainable status quo
Farmers say that currency controls, requirements to sell products in the country and high taxes on what they send abroad have hurt them so much that the status quo is unsustainable.
But They also see a lot of potential, if the Government did not interfere.
And that is what they expect if Milei manages to emerge from political anonymity to occupy the presidential seat after the November 19 runoff. Polls show a close dispute with the Minister of Economy, Sergio Massa, who represents the Peronist ruling party and the policies that farmers hate.
The countryside warned of a “tax” and the Government accused them of “sowing fear”
Milei has gained followers among farmers, but also among young people and others desperate for change. She points out how bad things are—the peso has lost more than 90% of its value in four years, the country is headed for its sixth recession in a decade, and poverty is on the rise—and offers a radical solution.
He wants to replace the peso with the US dollar, which could favor soybean trade; has promised to reduce taxes on exports and allow farmers to sell their crops wherever they want; Above all, he says, he wants to free the economy and let market forces rule.
It is a seductive message in the pampas – a steppe of almost 800,000 square kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to the semi-arid lands of the west – where Milei supporters say all they need to prosper is freedom from government restrictions.
If they achieve it, yesand would trigger an avalanche of exports to Asian buyers and one greater competition for the United States and Brazil, which could transform Argentine farmers into kings of a world in which the demand for food continues to grow. It would also reinforce the inflows of money into the Argentine economy in need of dollars.
For his part, Massa has said that he will not fall into the trap of the Peronists who preceded him and who used farmers as a scapegoat for economic problems. His advisors highlight recent tax reductions on products such as rice, peanuts and wine, some relief measures for farmers trying to maintain their business after the worst drought in 60 years and the promise to review export tariffs. of the main crops if he wins.
However, andProtectionism and the generosity of the Government have been key in Massa’s campaign. And in one rural town after another there is a deep feeling that only a clean break with Peronism will be enough.
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“I walk from dawn to dusk, but sometimes I just change the money,” he says. Gonzalo Schulteiss, un 30-year-old farmer from Maciá, province of Entre Ríos, who will vote for Milei. “We have hellish potential, but we can’t exploit it.”
Schulteiss doesn’t need to look far to see what realizing that potential might look like.
About 400 kilometers from Maciá, agriculture thrives in Brazil, with plantations in the tropical savannahs —despite opposition from environmentalists— and new technologies that increase production.
Argentina hasn’t been this dynamic since a century ago, when the rapid expansion of golden wheat and corn fields helped make the country one of the richest in the world.
But after World War II, Juan Domingo Peron He came to power prioritizing the needs of the working class over business interests, and redoubled state intervention. Buenos Aires’ interference in agriculture continued in the following decades until the sector stagnated.
InsteadBrazil’s agricultural and meat production has more than doubled in this century, thanks to subsidies and supportive policies from favorable legislators.
Brazil has also adopted intellectual property rights over seed genetics. In Argentina, this hasn’t happened — paying royalties for using patented technology is anathema to farmers who already feel pressured — so their soybean plants produce much less.
Calaón, the farmer, recalled a bygone era when Brazilian producers smuggled in soybean varieties from the pampas. It was known as “Maradona soybean”, in honor of the emblematic footballer.
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“Brazilians came to the exhibitions here and were amazed,” explains Calaón. “And in 20 years they turned it around.”
Agroindustrial companies such as Bayer AG now resist developing seeds in Argentina.
“The current level of investment in soybeans in the US and Brazil is a hundred times higher than in Argentina,” said Rodrigo Santos, head of Bayer’s crop science unit.
Of course, Argentine agriculture remains formidable, closely watched by negotiating tables from Chicago to Singapore.
Usually is the world’s largest supplier of feed and soybean oil to the food and biofuel industries; the third largest exporter of corn, also for flocks; and produces enough beef to satisfy not only the appetite of Argentineswho are the largest consumers of red meat in the world, but also that of part of the growing Chinese middle class.
Perhaps the biggest nightmare for producers are export tariffs: when they ship soybeans to the ports of Rosario, approximately one in three trucks they load is essentially diverted into government coffers. Controls that keep the peso artificially strong also greatly reduce income and investment.
Milei, who calls taxes theft, promises to end all this intervention, music to farmers’ ears.
“The truth is, we have to change this state policy.”“, it states Javier Mariscotti, a cereal broker who will vote for Milei. “You put your foot down in the field and it grows quickly.”