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Why is Brazil the new America? Hint: water.

While the US farm belt is mining its groundwater, Brazil is expanding production and lowering the cost of raising food.

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Workers harvest soybeans on a farm in Correntina, Bahia, in Brazil in this 2010 file photo. Brazil is expanding production and lowering costs at a time when America's heartland is struggling with drought and the long-term loss of groundwater.

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters/File

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 If you would like to get a firsthand peek at the bright future of Brazil, but you don’t have $7,500 for a business-class fare to Rio de Janeiro, you can learn almost as much, while having less fun, by making your way to Henry County, Ill., just east of Moline.

Drive around and take a good look at the worst drought in half a century. Remind yourself as you look at the desiccated fields that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted a record corn crop for 2012. 

It didn’t turn out that way. Current best estimates are that the US corn crop will fall by one-sixth. As a consequence, the price of corn has risen by 60 percent to an all-time high. Meanwhile, this year’s corn crop in Brazil is up 27 percent year-over-year. Brazil’s farmers are growing rich as American farmers go broke.

The USDA’s chronic optimism notwithstanding, as you look out over the brown fields of Henry County, many of which have already been harvested for low-value silage, you see the future of American farming. It is a little understood that in much of America’s farm belt, water is in chronically scarce supply. In eight states, the Ogallala (or High Plains) fossil aquifer provides the irrigation required to prevent the return of John Steinbeck’s 1930s Dust Bowl.

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