Small-Scale Farms in Argentina and Their Role in the Agricultural System

In the fall of 2011 I took a quarter off of school to conduct independent research in Argentina related to organic farming and the country’s agricultural system. I worked on five farms through the organization WWOOF throughout the country absorbing everything I could about the Argentina’s food system in the most hands-on approach I could imagine.  I contacted dozens of farms and set up my own itinerary beforehand and embarked for my three-month trip to South America with a single carry-on backpack. When I returned, I worked with a professor at the University of Washington to complete this report and receive credit credit. Although it is now 2 years outdated, I still wanted to share something I worked extremely hard on and to share insight into what WWOOFing is like for those considering the experience.

March 15, 2012

Part I

Introduction

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements depicts organic agriculture as a “production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people” while relying on “ecological processes [and] biodiversity” (Ifoam, 2009). This practice of organic farming has been widespread since the time when agriculture was first developed. The emergence of the Green Revolution through technology, research and development however, largely altered the natural way of growing crops throughout the world. Between the 1940s and the late 1970s during the Green Revolution, modern irrigation projects and powerful synthetic pesticides and herbicides helped to improve agricultural output immensely. Only recently has there been an increasing demand for organic food around the world as countries start to look back to ecologically balanced farming.

As people educate themselves, they begin to realize the value and quality of naturally grown foods and products. There is growing concern throughout the world over toxic foods and adulteration plaguing the food market. People are starting to understand the health risks associated with consuming large amounts of pesticides that include birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and other effects that might occur over a long period of time (“Health problems, 2011). Damaging effects also caused by an overuse of chemicals during the Green Revolution are seen in the form of acidic and hard land, depleted of earthworms. This land is far more costly because it requires increasingly more water to cultivate crops (Patel, 2011). Argentina is one of the many countries currently experiencing a shift towards healthier living and organic food and agriculture is widely viewed as part of the platform for this movement. This movement is presumably influenced initially by production on a smaller scale.

This paper aims to examine the goals and motivation behind small-scale organic farms in Argentina and what role they play within the country’s current and future agricultural system. This will be achieved by first thoroughly analyzing the current status of the country’s food system. The locations of large industrial farms and organic farms will be discussed as well as the country’s overwhelming soybean production and the problems associated, followed by an overview of the structure of the system and the role of organic agriculture. The paper will conclude with an in-depth and firsthand investigation into existing small-scale organic farms around the nation through the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). These small organic farms that I had the opportunity to work and live on, are located in several provinces within the nation and will help to provide clues to understanding Argentina’s agricultural future through the opinions, actions and dreams of many local Argentine people.

Argentina is one country in particular that has recently witnessed and will continue to witness changes in its agricultural system related directly to organic farming and an upsurge in its incorporation into the food system. Although there are a number of large-scale organic farms operating within the country today, most of the activity surrounding organic food and agriculture is found on small-scale organic farms. Additionally, the high demand for organic products in Argentina is still burgeoning and many farmers are finding that successful business strategy involves a primary exportation of goods to locations outside the country with the largest exported crop being soy.

Farmland in Argentina
Regionalization

Argentina is about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River and has abundant distinguishing climates and landscapes (“Background note: Argentina,” 2011).Although this explains why it is logical to grow varying crops in particular locations; Argentina overemphasizes this approach in its large-scale production. The east central climatic region of Argentina also known as the Pampas, is the region most suitable for crowing crops and consequentially the region where almost all industrial agriculture is produced. This is because it has an adequate rainfall of between 500mm and 1,000mm per year, mild winters with very little frost and warm, pleasant summers all perfect conditions for growing the majority of Argentina’s main crops (“Bbc weather argentina,” 2007). As prominent in the geography of many countries throughout the world, Argentina is not alone in what appears to be an incredibly regionalized distribution of agriculture in the nation. Problems have already transpired including the unsustainable transportation of food around the country and the loss of land and displacement of farmers related to massive soy production.

For a visual representation of Argentina’s regional agriculture, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides maps showing the percent planted area at the department level. The information is based on data from the Argentine Secretariat of Agriculture and shows planted area for a five-year average (1997/98 to 2001/02). Figure 1 included below shows the concentration of the planted area of corn in Argentina. Corn is just one example of the country’s main crops that visibly has the largest percentage of its planted area found within a small section of the country, this high level of centralization is not only unique to corn and Figure 2 displays the concentration of soy in the country. Virtually all of Argentina’s primary crop yields including soybeans, wheat and cotton are based in the northeast to east central region of the country in the Pampas, visible in Figure 3. In terms of organic agriculture however, the primary regions are reversed.

 

Unlike large-scale agricultural production, the majority of organic farms in Argentina are located within the southern region. Table 1 below provides evidence that the majority of organic farms are found in the south. In 2007, 190,429 hectares of organic farms were found solely in the three most southern provinces. The majority of the farms listed on the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms website are located in the top four provinces with the most organic farmers. These are Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Misiones and Rio Negro. Four of the farms I worked on were in three of the top four provinces and the fourth province I visited has the third largest average area of organic farmland.  The disparity in organic farm locations may be largely due to the limited amount of farmland in the northeast and east central regions that is available and affordable for small-scale organic farmers. The prime climatic regions are controlled to a great extent by large-scale production industrial farms. The inequality in both organic and inorganic farmland distribution means that the only way to achieve widespread access within the country is through massive transportation. In the case of Argentina, this is accomplished predominately through the use of trucks transporting produce from the north to the south. This is inherently a problem because of the fuel that is required to relocate produce, but additionally small-scale organic farms in the south are unable to afford the costs related to export transportation logistics and organic produce is not durable enough to make long journeys. Challenges exist preventing swift conversion of land in the northwestern regions to organic farmland and the biggest issue is related to soybean production.

Table 1. Organic farms by Provinces in Argentina (Rodríguez, 2008)

Organic farms by Provinces in Argentina

Organic farms by Provinces in Argentina

In Argentina, large-scale farms severely dominate over smaller farms and even the rural landscape. Agricultural production is extremely concentrated as mentioned above, and the 30 largest companies control a total of 2.4 million hectares of land (Manciana 2009). The National Indigenous Campesino Movement of Argentina “reports that 82 percent of farmers live off of 13 percent of the nation’s land used for agriculture, while 4 percent of large land holders or financial investors in the agro industry own more than 65 percent” (Trigona, 2009). As Argentina is the world’s third largest soybean exporter and exports more soybeans than any other crop as shown in Figure 4, much of this land and industry is dedicated to the growth and production of soybeans. The quantity of soybeans produced has caused a trade-off between available crop farmlands in the country. The encroachment on arable land that soy production has, is linked to increased land prices and displacing small farmers from their homes. Many Argentines agree that this is a serious problem in the country’s farmland usage.

Figure 4. Commodity shares of Argentina’s total value of exports of agricultural products (Lence, 2010)

 Commodity shares of Argentina’s total value of exports of agricultural products

Commodity shares of Argentina’s total value of exports of agricultural products

Soybean Production

The production of soybean is an incredibly profitable venture especially because of its available use as an alternative fuel in soy biodiesel. Based on data from the Ministry of Agriculture, economists show that between 1997 and 2008 soy exports increased in value from $3.2 billion to $16.3 billion. Researchers also point out that only a handful of companies account for 85 percent of the business (Aranda & Holland, 2011). Argentina has seized this economic opportunity with soy representing about half of the harvest in crops annually with no subsidies for soybean farmers. Additionally, very little of this is in organic soy production and soy is barely consumed in the domestic market. In 2005 Argentina’s domestic consumption of soy was only 0.024 percent of its total soy production and yet soy still continues to dominate and to grow (“Oilseed; soybean,” 2005). It is primarily exported but also used to feed cattle within the country and the area cultivated with soy has increased 126 percent in one decade to 19 million hectares. This represents 56 percent of Argentina’s cultivated land and these numbers are predicted to rise (Aranda & Holland, 2011). Soybeans command prices of around 600 dollars a ton but production is expanding at the expense of small-scale farmers (Valente, 2008). The disparities in land titles have led to violent evictions and already many local and organic farmers have been displaced from their farmlands as a result.

Soy has had a profound effect on farmers. Land consolidation used for production of the crop, has changed the lives of thousands of farmers. “As the result of soy, more than 50 percent of the population in the province [Chaco] were displaced from the countryside,” losing their homelands and often their livelihoods. “According to the official agricultural census, a total of 103,405 farmers closed down their farms between 1988 and 2002, which constitutes ¼ of farming businesses” (Trigona, 2009). Additionally, the average size of farms increased from 421 to 538 hectares and between 1998 and 2002, farms decreased in size by 24.5 percent (Pengue 2005). There have been many personal accounts of family lands being bulldozed and many times land is sold or stolen right out from under them as a result of soy. If farmers are not forcibly moved off their land, the rising costs of land make it incredibly enticing for them to sell their property. This is especially true if farmers are growing less valuable crops than soybeans as production costs increase and commodity prices become lower.

Land in Argentina has been increasingly seen as extremely valuable to the Argentine government and outside governments. Not only has the profitability of soy displaced thousands of farmers, but also the option of purchasing land for organic agriculture use is currently almost unimaginable. In recent years the increase of land values in Argentina is a clear indication of the competition that soy creates. For instance, “in the core area of the Argentine Pampas, the cost of one hectare has risen from 2,000 dollars in 1990 to 10,000 dollars today. The same increases have [also] occurred in the irrigated areas of the Northwest and Cuyo, where prices for land have risen more than 500 percent in some cases” (Sili & Soumoulou, 2011). In a country where soybean products account 24.1 percent of total exports and revenue from export duties alone in the 2010-2011 harvest were around 8.04 billion dollars, it has become a struggle for startup organic farms to purchase land (“Argentina set to,” 2011). This increase in land prices related to the increase in soybean output, may account for the high numbers of organic farms in southern regions in comparison to the north and the limited integration of small-scale organic farms into Argentina’s food system.

Current Structure of the Food System

Self-Sufficiency

In order to further understand the current and future role of organic agriculture, it is essential to have a clear comprehension of Argentina’s food system. One important aspect includes the nation’s high level of self-sufficiency in agriculture. Potentially influenced by the country’s turbulent economic past and fear of repeated collapse in the economy, Argentina uniquely relies on very few imports from around the world, especially in agri-food products. In fact, Argentina is 44th country in the world ranked by imports (“The world fact,” 2011) and in 2005, less than 10 percent of total imports were from agri-food products, most of these from textiles, clothes and cellulose as Table 2 depicts below (Regúanaga, 2007). Because Argentina is not faced with a reliance on foreign imports, its self-sufficiency in agriculture should help to facilitate a swift switch to an increase in more organic products in the future.

Table 2. Value of Imports of Agri-food Products. Share in Total Argentine Imports in 2005 (Regúanaga, 2007).

Value of Imports of Agri-food Products. Share in Total Argentine Imports in 2005

Value of Imports of Agri-food Products. Share in Total Argentine Imports in 2005

Role of Organic

The organic sector in Argentina “has grown thanks to its own efforts [since] no direct governmental subsidies or economic aid is provided to this sector” (Rodríguez, 2008). Already Argentina has a well-developed organic market with 4.4 million hectares of land under organic management and over 225,000 hectares in crop production, making it second only to Australia in absolute land area (Weidmann, Kilcher & Garibay, 2011). From less than 500,000 hectares of organic land in 1999, this is a phenomenal increase (Scialabba, 2001). Interestingly enough however, the increase in organic demand may not be appropriately attributed to an increase in demand domestically.

The majority of organic food produced in Argentina is still being exported to foreign countries rather than being utilized for domestic consumption. There has been a “rapidly growing demand [for certified organic products] from international markets with strong economies, such as the United States and the European Union. In these places, consumption of organic products has been increasing significantly in the last few years and is predicted to increase (Balbi, 2000). Approximately 90 percent of the organic production is oriented toward the export market (Thilmany, 2006) with the European Union importing 80 percent of Argentinean organic products and the rest being sold to the United States and Switzerland (Rodríguez, 2008). Even though domestic consumption is still catching up to high demands visible in the United States and the European Union, an overall increase in organic production within the country should help to expedite a future desire for organics especially if it is to become increasingly accessible. The question of small-scale organic farms however still stands.

It is crucial to note that although existing, current figures are limited, the aforementioned increases in organic outputs are primarily attributable to industrial organic production. It is necessary at this point in time for the government to provide more support in assisting small-scale farms throughout the country. This is because of the stipulations associated with organic production. Smaller-scale organic farms suffer from many constricting standards with strict organic legislations and “technical barriers to trade are feared” by the farmers on these small farms who hope to profit (Scialabba, 2000). Stemming from an overwhelming interest in exporting organics abroad, the extreme focus on certified organic products and meeting frequently expensive requirements, has shifted attention away from an emphasis on local food security (Scialabba, 2000). Small organic farms in Argentina have the potential to ensure local food security but in order for these farms to thrive, changes must be made. Conditions need to be established and subsidies awarded that will provide equal opportunities for organic producers. Organic agriculture policies that are market driven must give support to small farms to ensure their existence, especially when competing with larger industrial farms in profits and land use.

Part II
Background on World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
The organization known as WWOOF or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a worldwide network of organizations that links volunteers with organic farmers, and helps people share more sustainable ways of living. “In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles” (“What is wwoof?,” 2012). WWOOF provides the link to connect people who want to volunteer on organic farms or smallholdings with people who are looking for volunteer help themselves. What began in 1971 London, England when a secretary named Sue Coppard started weekend trips to work in the countryside for Sussex College students, has transformed into a much larger system of national groups throughout the world. Coppard “recognized the need to provide access to the countryside for people like herself who did not otherwise have the means or the opportunity, and who were keen to support the organic movement” (“What is wwoof?,” 2012). This enthusiasm for returning to the land, connecting with the environment and learning about where food comes from is still the basis of why many people continue to participate in WWOOF today, why I decided to join the organization and the reason why many farmers in Argentina that I encountered were determined to establish their own projects. The path of my travels between each farm can be seen in Figure 5. I began in the east, moved northwest, then south, and ended on my last farm on the east coast.
Las Doce Tribus ( The Twelve Tribes)
To embark on my first WWOOFing experience, I caught a bus from the congested streets of Buenos Aires with the help of a couple locals. For two hours we drove to a town about 60km west of the city and still within the Buenos Aires Province called General Rodríguez. Reminding me of a smaller Buenos Aires, the town was unorganized, chaotic and dirty and crossing the street required utmost attention. Nothing could have prepared me however for the eleven days I spent on my first farm, las Doce Tribus, the Twelve Tribes in English, located just outside the city.
The Twelve Tribes is an international confederation of religious communities located throughout the world. The branch in Argentina is only about nine years old and has close to 60 members that live either on the property grounds or at the community’s bakery downtown. The community has many criticisms of the current state of society which encouraged the movement to leave the world’s culture behind and lead a different lifestyle. Among their criticisms of the world order is the community’s disapproval of the country’s agricultural system and its lack of local and organic food. Therefore they work diligently towards being self-sustaining by growing and selling their own organic produce and purchasing food only as necessary. Work in the community was extremely organized with scheduled breaks and mealtimes each day and functioned efficiently because each member contributed their fair share of work. As a volunteer, my duties were clear to me and the majority of my six hours of work per day were dedicated to helping the other women with “women’s work” inside the home. I also had the opportunity to help a little in one of their two gardens as well as the greenhouse.

Figure 5. My trip route (Google maps, 2012)

My WWOOFing Argentina trip route

My WWOOFing Argentina Trip Route

figure5b
After waking up each day at six am in the house on the property for single women, I would join everyone in the community for a bible study accompanied with singing and dancing, and followed by an organic breakfast typically consisting of rice, onions and peppers. Without delay I joined the other four volunteers after breakfast and began work for the day. My duties typically consisted of preparing the meals which meant chopping, washing and gathering the vegetables, baking the deserts and serving the food. I also spent a lot of time washing the dishes because each meal left dozens of dirty dishes.  On days with particularly inclement weather, we found our help was needed in the kitchen more than outdoors because preparing three meals a day for 60 people was no simple effort. Often I would be given the duty of peeling bags of onions, chopping carrots and making pizza bases for hours on end. In the garden I helped a little with weeding the lettuce and onions and planting corn. Because of the size of their gardens, each of these activities could take days to complete and of course weeding was not a task that was ever completed. I also had the opportunity to work in their bakery one day downtown where the community made a lot of their income to support their lifestyle. Here I helped bake organic bread and package their cookies.We were kept incredibly busy each day, working alongside all the members of the community. During our daily siestas in which we had an hour to rest, I was able to find time to speak with the community members and learn more about their purpose and ambitions as well as ask questions about their country.

 

Most of my questions were answered by Mr. and Mrs. Rodríguez who are originally from California and have been involved with the Twelve Tribes for 30 years. I learned that in the seven years they have lived in the community in Argentina, they have witnessed numerous changes. Mr. Rodríguez noticed that even within the last five years, “the organic industry and organic demand has really changed.” At the store where they buy their produce, five years ago they could only buy organic food for their community if there were extra apples or maybe peaches that were not being shipped abroad to countries with a higher demand for organic produce. “Now there are at least three different vendors with only organic produce inside the same store.” While the community itself produces a lot of organic food, they cannot grow enough currently to feed themselves. This is because the demand for organic food in the city has increased immensely; making it much more profitable to sell the majority of the food they grow and only consume what they have surpluses of. It is clear that demand for organic produce is increasing and members of the community cited the influx of gated communities to General Rodríguez and outside wealth brought into the city as reasons why this may be. Mr. Rodríguez raised the question to me of why organic produce might be more costly than produce requiring expensive pesticides and he told me about the farm where they buy their organic olive oil. There, the majority of the olive oil is exported to the United States and sold at Whole Foods Markets. Likely he said, because of the much more prevalent demand for organic food existing in the United States. Rodríguez told me he wishes that organic agriculture were more popular in Argentina, but also that more people apart from the wealthy could afford it. “I hope things continue to change because we want to be able to buy more organic food for our community” he said.  Destined to gain more insight into the minds of the Argentine farmers, I left the Twelve Tribes exhausted, and with no time to rest caught a bus and headed farther west, still in the Buenos Aires Province, to San Andrés de Giles.

Las Cortaderas
Still recovering from the culture shock brought on by living in an enclosed religious community, I first described my initial impression of Las Cortaderas as comparing “night and day between here and the community.” The bus took me about 40km west of Luján where I first transferred to from General Rodríguez and dropped me off alongside the highway Route 7. Following the signs along a dirt road, I soon arrived at my second farm. Las Cortaderas is situated on a beautiful plot of land with giant pastures and a lagoon surrounded by thousands of plants I would later discover the location was named for. A long pathway took me by the small house for the volunteers, about a hundred young, white chickens pecking about, a horse grazing, and eventually led me to the rustic restaurant and home of Judith and Sergio, the couple who own the establishment.

Sergio and Judith are a young, warm and welcoming couple that patiently deciphered my Spanish with permanent, friendly smiles. Five years ago, the two of them left their jobs as accountants in Buenos Aires. They wanted to experience a new life in the countryside, start a restaurant involving organic produce and raise their two small, adorable children in an environment allowing a connection with nature that they viewed as necessary to their development and world understanding. Their restaurant is right next to their small home and has peaceful outdoor seating and two large, clay ovens. They serve free range, organic chicken, pig and beef, along with a number of organic vegetables from their garden. During the weekends when the restaurant was open, I was able to assist the restaurant employees by serving food to and waiting on the customers. The majority of my time though, was spent with the animals and in the garden.

Each day I was responsible for looking after the sheep and the old horse. There were 28 sheep when I first arrived and during my 14 day stay, two more were born. Divided into two shifts per day, I was responsible for watching over them, herding and relocating them to various corrals, pastures or back into their shelter in the evenings. The sheep covered a ton of ground and grazed at all times whenever they were out. I could not have imagined how difficult it would be to keep an eye on 28 sheep and a horse all at once and by myself. There were many frustrating instances when the sheep all ran in the wrong directions and I often felt a strong sense of defeat. Sergio and Judith plan to eventually use their sheep as meat but at the time they were just learning more about the breeding and sheering processes. The white chickens they had running around the property were used for their meat and eggs and their excrement was used as a natural fertilizer in the organic garden. I was responsible for feeding the chickens and gathering their eggs, but when I was not with the animals, I was working in the garden. There, I watered, weeded, planted and harvested the garden as necessary. They were growing many tomato plants, onions, garlic, lettuce, carrots and different types of spinach. Judith incorporated a number of these vegetables into our daily meals together. Every morning I was responsible for cooking my own breakfast in the quaint house for volunteers but Sergio and Judith provided me with eggs, bread and tea. For lunch and dinner I was invited into their home to eat incredible home-cooked meals with them and their two children. In this social setting, I was able to ask the majority of my questions and learn more about them, their history and their country.

Judith and Sergio first became interested in this lifestyle because of Sergio’s love for wildlife, animals and the outdoors. Neither of them came from a farming background and Judith had only a few pets growing up. The two of them both believe that young people in Argentina are beginning to feel the need to return back to the land, but the demand for organic produce is still lagging especially when compared with the United States. They expressed to me that it is too expensive to purchase solely organic produce and almost impossible for the working class to access healthy food in Argentina. Judith told me that “during the summer, seasonal fruits are less expensive but food is expensive for everyone especially because of inflation”. Those with less money consume primarily “pasta and rice and never eat meat.” The two of them are optimistic that the food movement in Argentina will progress and they hope their organic restaurant will help to inspire others to appreciate nature and ask questions about where food in the country is coming from.
La Permacultura
While I was sorry to leave the couple that had treated me like a family member; I was simultaneously excited to become familiar with more of the country and I purchased a bus ticket for Mendoza to make my way to my next farm. After nearly twelve hours on the bus, I arrived in the capital city of the Province of Mendoza, located in the western central part of the country. From the bus terminal I caught a local bus to Los Barriales where I would live for the next three weeks. Los Barriales is a small town east of Mendoza and has a population of about 3,000 people. Upon arriving to the farm I opened the makeshift wire gate with the words “La Permacultura” painted on a wooden sign and I was greeted by two mangy dogs. Not long after arriving, the owners of the property, Hugo and Silvana, a couple in their late twenties, introduced me to the other three volunteers, gave me a tour and demonstrated to me what my tasks would be over the next few weeks.
I quickly realized I had come a long way from the strict timeliness and order of the religious community. The basis of permaculture concerns the development of agricultural ecosystems that are intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. This was precisely the overarching goal of Hugo and Silvana on their farm. On the permaculture farm, I still worked about six hours a day, but there, the time of day never mattered as long as we could avoid working in the direct sun during the hottest part of each day. Because Hugo and Silvana have a permaculture farm; they tried to grow all of their crops amalgamated together. They also have two large pens with rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys in each one. Along with the other volunteers, our jobs included weeding, watering, gathering eggs, feeding the animals, replanting trees and preparing and working with the beehives. Frequently we would be responsible for preparing meals which involved picking berries and gathering a salad from wild weeds dispersed throughout their land. On one of the days I was able to visit the local elementary school where Silvana has established a small garden that all of the children help to maintain. I explained to the children in Spanish how I practiced sustainable living in my hometown and about organic agriculture. Additionally, on their property Hugo and Silvana had an old, dilapidated building and for a few days at a time, we worked to demolish the structure using pick axes and sledge hammers. Since their project was a very recent endeavor, there was never a lack of projects.

 

Hugo and Silvana were the most opinionated Argentines that I encountered on my trip. The two had previously been electrical engineers but were deeply unsatisfied with their careers and were determined to lead more meaningful lives. Less than a year ago they both quit their jobs and borrowed some money from their parents to purchase a plot of land in the countryside near Mendoza. Even though neither of them knew the first thing about farming, they planned to be as self-sufficient on their land as possible, only purchasing the absolute necessities. They explained to me the endless complaints they had about lifestyles and food in Argentina. They believed the country is too wasteful, grows too much soy and monoculture crops and that there is a serious lack of organic produce available. Hugo informed me that they “know many younger people [like themselves] who are moving away from the cities and realizing they want a new life that is sustainable and healthy.” He told me that people like himself and Silvana want to reconnect with the land and the knowledge of their ancestors that is now forgotten. They try to read as many books as they can from all over the world to gain new perspectives and learn more ideas about sustainable living. Unfortunately because their project is so young, it is impossible to know for certain if they will be able to succeed.
Already they were having difficulties on their farm, especially financially. “There have been a lot of changes in the country even in the last two years,” Hugo told me, especially the prices of food. Cheese that used to cost five pesos two years ago, now costs 25 pesos. “The food we can’t grow yet is very expensive to buy” said Hugo. They don’t produce enough food to feed themselves and their volunteers and yet there is endless organization and work to be accomplished on their farm and they need the help of other people. Their savings were depleting fast and fortunately Silvana had just recently acquired a job as a part time teacher at the elementary school. When I asked Silvana about selling their eggs or honey for profit or if they would invest in a cow, she answered that vending would not prevail because in the poor area that they live in, there is no market for organic produce. Their idea is that Silvana’s job will allow them to pay for the necessities, while in the meantime they work towards their end goal of being entirely self-sufficient. Even though Hugo and Silvana are faced with the probability that they may fail, I admired them for their ambition and persistence in deviating from society’s expectations. Working on the permaculture farm was a unique opportunity and I realized how special it was that I could observe a project in its earliest stages. I witnessed the two of them struggling to get by with financial and relationship problems and recognized that typically people are drawn to fully functioning projects as prior to arriving; this was the way I imagined their farm to be. Hugo and Silvana hope that through the WWOOF organization and by educating children at Silvana’s school about sustainable living, more people will become aware of their project and their reasoning, along with the problems facing Argentina.

La Casita

 

My next farm brought me to another one of Argentina’s provinces. Before arriving, I had heard a lot about this city in the Río Negro Province during the time I spent in Argentina. It is known for its nature tourism, its large number of organic farms and very popular local farmers market. I arrived in El Bolsón, a breathtakingly beautiful city situated below the Andes, with Peter, my friend and fellow volunteer I had met on my first farm at the religious community. On this farm I realized that maybe WWOOF is much more about projects that people need help establishing, than about completed, operative products. La Casita, or the Little House, was a prime example of one such work-in-progress. Ester, a middle-aged, single woman was trying to start her own business by converting her small home alongside a river, into a hostel and yard for the tents of campers where they can use the shower, sink and toilet. Due to Ester’s business plans, the work Peter and I did at La Casita was for the purpose of beautifying the property and making it presentable for future guests. The majority of our two weeks there was spent leveling the front and backyards, picking up branches and rocks, sweeping the picnic benches and covered areas, watering the small garden and making flower beds in the front. The work was never too grueling and there was always time for Peter and I to speak with Ester.

Ester believes that there are many social problems in Argentina and many impoverished individuals that cannot afford to buy food, much less organic food. She explained to me that because the majority of the fruits and vegetables are grown in the north or central parts of Argentina, they must be brought in on trucks, making them very expensive to the locals in the south. The food produced in El Bolsón is rarely exported and primarily consumed by just the family members on the farms that grow it. Ester related to me the problem of the government’s role in agriculture. The Argentine government always takes 30 percent of the profits from farming regardless of the yield. While this action is meant to benefit the country, the corruptness of the government means that frequently this money is just pocketed. One positive transition that Ester has noticed is the recent increase in demand for organic produce across Argentina. Even so, the food is very expensive and Ester herself cannot afford to buy any of it. She hopes that the situation surrounding agriculture in the country will improve and that organic food will become more affordable in the near future.

Ester, Peter (other WWOOF volunteer) and myself in front of La Casita in El Bolson, Argentina

Ester, Peter (other WWOOF volunteer) and myself in front of La Casita in El Bolson, Argentina

The view from the front of La Casita in El Bolson, Argentina

The view from the front of La Casita in El Bolson, Argentina

Bahía Bustamante

Located on the coast in the Chubut Province of Argentina, Bahía Bustamante is a tiny village that has been transformed from an abandoned fishing village to a quiet, remote and beautiful vacation resort that is the town. Made famous by a New York Times article last year, Bahía Bustamante is a surprisingly popular travel destination for many foreigners that must travel 20 hours from Buenos Aires by bus to reach the nearest city or catch a plane. In both cases someone from the resort must take one of the Landrovers and drive over an hour to retrieve guests or volunteers. The first things I noticed on the way to the resort were the horses grazing on the unbelievable stretch of land, the wild guanacos, the vast expanse of sky and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing just below the guest houses.

A view from the resort at Bahía Bustamante, Chubut, Argentina

A view from the resort at Bahía Bustamante, Chubut, Argentina

Soon after arriving, Victoria, the hotel manager showed me to the room I shared for three weeks with another volunteer from Switzerland and explained to me my duties as a volunteer. Each morning I was responsible for setting up the breakfast buffet. This involved preparing coffee and toast, refilling all of the cereals and canned fruits and setting and clearing the tables. During the afternoons I helped to water and weed in the organic garden. The organic garden was a recent endeavor and has not been an effortless process. The climate in Bahía Bustamante is very unfavorable for growing crops because of the strong winds and intense heat. Accounting for this, Astrid, the owner of the resort has worked hard to make it produce vegetables by carefully creating barriers for crops from the wind and closing and opening the windows of the greenhouse during different times of the day. The extremely dry climate also meant that my help was needed to water the garden each day. During the evenings I waited on the guest’s tables for dinner and served them food and drinks, all very challenging to do in Spanish.

Inside the restaurant at Bahia Bustamante, Chubut, Argentina

Inside the restaurant at Bahia Bustamante, Chubut, Argentina

The large number of employees at the resort meant that they were always people for me to talk to and gain more insight into Argentina’s agriculture. I spoke to Victoria often, the hotel manager who spoke English fluently and had many opinions about her country. She and her husband both work at the resort and they have two children. She described to me the struggle her and her family have affording the high food costs within the country. She saw the biggest problem as a strong disconnect between farmers and farmers and the actual food itself. “There just aren’t farms today like there were with our ancestors. I have two children in school and they [have] never learned anything about farming or food and I know that they won’t. They are not taught those things in schools in Argentina, but I think it is important to know.”

Speaking with Astrid also provided me with even more awareness about food in Argentina. She told me that the reason why food is so expensive in Argentina is “probably because of all the soybeans fields that the government [likely] subsidizes.” She explained to me that the soy is shipped out around the world for energy purposes and much of the available land for crops is taken up by the soy. Although she told me that it is nearly impossible to find organic soy products, she agreed with my other findings that organic produce is slowly becoming more popular in Argentina as people become more educated and concerned about what they are putting into their bodies. This increasing awareness of food and of Argentina’s agricultural system seemed to be a motivating factor for many of the farmers I met to start their own projects.

Conclusion

The organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms provided me with an incredible opportunity to meet local Argentine people and to learn about how many of the problems mentioned in the first part of this paper are affecting them. The people I spoke with all had problems with the system and particularly with Argentina’s agriculture industry. Many blamed their dissatisfaction on the overwhelming amount of soy grown in the country, the high cost of organic food and the abundance of unhealthy pesticides used on the majority of produce. All of these were reasons why the hosts on my farms reacted and became motivated to start their own projects that could reconnect them with their roots, allow them appreciate the natural world and take care of their bodies. Projects such as the permaculture farm and La Casita may have been starting out small, but they believe others see what they are doing and become encouraged to follow in similar ways. A few individuals expressed to me that this can be done in ways that do not have to be radical such as purchasing produce from farmers markets or starting small gardens in their yards. In Argentina, young people in particular are trying to improve many of the problems the country has surrounding food. The support and development of local, organic, small-scale farms is the first step towards making that goal a reality.

References

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3 thoughts on “Small-Scale Farms in Argentina and Their Role in the Agricultural System

  1. This is awesome! Oh La Casita, good times. I’m currently teaching in Gillam, MB, and learning about life in northern Canada. If you want another case study on remote communities and food economies, c’mon down (er, up, I suppose). Our government is only now starting to fund greenhouses and hydroponics so that people don’t have to pay $6 for a head of lettuce!

    • How is it up in Gillam? Is Sara up there with you? I would love to visit and see what it’s like! So great that people are getting more into sustaining themselves by growing their own food in the U.S. and Canada-and other places too of course. It is such a tragedy that it is far cheaper to buy junk food than produce.

      • Gillam is beautiful. There’s about 1000 people, one grocery store, and one restaurant, so it makes for a pretty tight community. Watched some dogsled racers come in over Hudson Bay the other night, that was cool! And no, Sara is back in Winnipeg doing her nursing classes, but I’m heading home for spring break tomorrow (you know, flying south for spring break…that’s what people do, right? 😛 )

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