The Agroforestry of Patagonia

by Harry Greene

Patagonia’s Alto Valle

It’s 95 degrees, and the wind is gusting at 35 knots. The warm air is pulling the moisture out of my skin, and a fine layer of dust is collecting on my eyebrows. In a region that gets 7 inches of rain annually, one would not expect to find this forest corridor, lining the banks of the Río Negro. From a satellite image, the Alto Valle is a curving line of dark green in an expanse of brown: it stretches from the Patagonian Andes, east to the South Atlantic. This grid of apple orchards and poplar trees is a century old: it has survived the dynamic cycles of Argentine politics, and shows unique resilience in the face of both climate change and globalization. I sought out veterans of the region’s tree-crop industry, and together we made our way through this valley of green.

  These men measure their age in  turnos de corte : intervals of 12-15 years, or the time it takes to plant and cut down a poplar tree. Pictured here are Norberto Serventi and his son Mauro. Norberto is a former forester and a keeper of the region's poplar knowledge. Mauro has followed in his father's footsteps and is also a forester.

These men measure their age in turnos de corte: intervals of 12-15 years, or the time it takes to plant and cut down a poplar tree. Pictured here are Norberto Serventi and his son Mauro. Norberto is a former forester and a keeper of the region's poplar knowledge. Mauro has followed in his father's footsteps and is also a forester.

Where are we? What makes this place so special?

The poplars slow the wind. Patagonia is an expanse of wildness that stretches from the 38th parallel south, down to Cape Horn and the strait of Magellan where the wind once snapped the masts off of whaling ships. The provinces of Neuquen and Río Negro stretch from the spine of the Andes, east through dry grasslands to the ocean. The weather comes from the west: warm moist air from the Pacific forms rain clouds over Chile and sends dry air across the plains of Argentina. Unchecked, these masses of air push through at over 40 miles per hour. In Spanish, the word windbreak translates to a “forest curtain.” These towering rows of poplars protect apple, pear, peach, and cherry orchards, and decades ago, when the fruit trees were free-standing, they were once a necessity in fruit production. Now that farmers trellis their trees on wires, windbreaks exist to both decrease cosmetic damage to fruit and increase total yields per tree. Much as the warm air desiccates my face, it pulls moisture from the trees’ stomata, i.e. the pores that cover the leaves of all non-aquatic plants. Trees exhale oxygen and inhale carbon dioxide through these pores, but when heat or wind-stressed, they close them up and stop photosynthesizing. This is to say that if the wind is too strong and it’s too hot outside, the fruit stops growing. While abandoned orchards in New York turn into overgrown apple thickets, abandoned chacras in the Alto Valle slowly stop producing, desiccate, turn brown, and die. This sea of wood is anthropogenic, but it affects the awe of the Pyramids at Giza combined with the sensory inundation of a forest.

 This organic apple orchard is in a grid windbreaks that tower over the fruit trees. The taller the windbreak, the more effective it is at slowing the wind.

This organic apple orchard is in a grid windbreaks that tower over the fruit trees. The taller the windbreak, the more effective it is at slowing the wind.

 Flood irrigation allows greater productivity than the native desert. This redirected water moves the parcels to a new climax ecosystem: forest.

Flood irrigation allows greater productivity than the native desert. This redirected water moves the parcels to a new climax ecosystem: forest.

Flood irrigation: turn on the clouds.

If not for irrigation, there would be no fruit. The water here comes from snowmelt, high in the mountains. Just west of Neuquen, the Río Negro and Río Limay are dammed up in a network of massive lakes. Though the rivers once shrank in late summer, their levels are now consistent throughout the year: this makes turn-key flood irrigation possible. The water is diverted through robust cement canals and smaller packed-earth canals. The poplar windbreaks are planted along these waterways. Small and large floodgates regulate the flow.

 In the valley there exists the profession of “irrigator:” An irrigator rides around on a motorcycle, and opens/closes the floodgates on schedule.

In the valley there exists the profession of “irrigator:” An irrigator rides around on a motorcycle, and opens/closes the floodgates on schedule.

 The grid of irrigation is the grid of photosynthesis.From a satellite image, this is a sea of green in an expanse of arid grasslands, bordering on desert.

The grid of irrigation is the grid of photosynthesis.From a satellite image, this is a sea of green in an expanse of arid grasslands, bordering on desert.

This region has a robust culture of sustainable agriculture, and as the saying goes: la cultura del pueblo se ve en los ríos. The culture of the town can be seen in the rivers. The irrigation canals here are clean, as are the rivers. The nature of perennial tree crops and permanent ground cover grows soil rather than washing it away: the water is clear and not brown. Slalom kayakers train in the swiftwater, and kiteboarders fly along the lake shores.

 Collectively, the 400,000 acres of lakes that feed the region's trees are slightly larger than Lake Champlain in both area and volume. They hold 6.2 cubic miles of water and their hydroelectric plants put out over 1800 megawatts, which is on par with the Hoover Dam.

Collectively, the 400,000 acres of lakes that feed the region's trees are slightly larger than Lake Champlain in both area and volume. They hold 6.2 cubic miles of water and their hydroelectric plants put out over 1800 megawatts, which is on par with the Hoover Dam.

What does the future of the Alto Valle have in store?

Markets change faster than do trees. The A-Grade fruit is exported, and farmers are therefore subject to not just local preferences, but global market dynamics. When we Americans buy apples in March, from Argentina, they likely come from this valley. Historically, Peronist populism has been ever-present in Argentine politics. Peronism is neither liberal nor conservative. It is not a party, but rather a movement that is defined by ad-hoc intervention between workers and employers. Subsidies and government benefits abound, but with little planning. When subsidies subside, and apple imports flow in from Chile and Brazil, previously-propped-up farmers are ill-equipped to deal with such fluctuations of the market. Caption: No one knows political uncertainty quite like the Argentines. For 80 years of the 20th century, there was not a democratic change of power from one party to another: there were only intra-party transfers and military coup d’etats. Interventions and regulations can indeed smooth out the market, but restricting the flow of goods, services and capital for decades, and then suddenly promoting free trade equates to blowing a hole in a dam. At that, growing apples or pears is not like growing corn or wheat: during the initial 3-4 years of lag time it takes for a tree to produce, farmers can lose their shirts. This is not a call for sympathy, but rather an attempt to clarify the social climate of the region. Given this certain uncertainty, how do the innovative farmers make due?

 Organic fruit is emerging as a dignified livelihood for many farmers in Patagonia.

Organic fruit is emerging as a dignified livelihood for many farmers in Patagonia.

Humans are creatures of habit. We may eat the same thing for breakfast that we did fifteen years ago, and our professional lives are no different. So many business owners prefer to watch their bank account dry up before reinventing themselves. The market self-selects for the most competent, and the world’s oldest businesses are those that have been most able to adapt. In the United States, solvent Vermont dairy farmers are either staying afloat via economies of scale, or they are value adding: even local banks won’t lend working capital to mid-size conventional producers unless they plan to transition to organic. This is a common theme among commodity producers across the globe, and Argentine apple producers are no different. As an organic grower in the Alto Valle told us, “I make money selling organic fruit, and the conventional producers don’t believe me! Ellos no me creen!” We had the opportunity to visit a different organic producer from Valle Azul. It was just before harvest season, so he took the time to show us around his farm. Organic farms seem to have less tension and more birds. We spoke of organic transition, pastured poultry, and hard cider.

 Julio Domingo Garcia a regional forester, along with Sandro Saralegui and his son toured me through their organic orchards and silvopasture.

Julio Domingo Garcia a regional forester, along with Sandro Saralegui and his son toured me through their organic orchards and silvopasture.

Argentina is known for its beef. Wood-grilled asado is a staple of the country’s gastronomy, and for good reason. The humid pampas produce a staggering amount of grass, and much of Argentina’s dry grasslands are only suited to raising sheep and cattle. In the face of volatile fruit markets, many farmers are turning toward beef, and forestry...or silvopasture. Silvopasture is the intentional incorporation of tree crops and pastured livestock. In Neuquen, cattle are grazed under widely-spaced poplar plantations. Poplar is the tree-of-choice for windbreaks, but it is also a marketable soft-hardwood. Flood irrigation speeds the growth of the timber, the grass, and the cattle. The poplars are cut after 12-15 years, and the beef cattle are sent to slaughter at 18 months: the trees are the savings account and the cattle are the checking account. Feedlot-beef consumption has become stigmatized in recent years, but Project Drawdown places silvopasture as the #9 most effective way to rip carbon out of the atmosphere.

more on Silvopasture on Propagate.org

 The Saralegui Farm grows poplar timber in addition to fruit. Timber is a low-maintenance, long-term investment, and Sandro manages cattle in the understory of this plantation. The soil is sandy, and the poplar roots are vigorous, which allows for infrequent herd moves.

The Saralegui Farm grows poplar timber in addition to fruit. Timber is a low-maintenance, long-term investment, and Sandro manages cattle in the understory of this plantation. The soil is sandy, and the poplar roots are vigorous, which allows for infrequent herd moves.

Both the ecologically-managed tree crops of the Alto Valle, along with silvopasture are categorized as agroforestry. Agroforestry is an emerging asset class, as it is both profitable and inherently regenerative. Propagate Ventures is on a mission to make agriculture work for 100% of humanity. We design, finance, and install profitable tree systems on working farms. These trees function in tandem with existing operations. Agroforestry is a clear and tangible opportunity to take advantage of underutilized vertical space, without compromising crop yields. Trees slow wind, shade cattle, and become marketable wood, which contribute to a farmer’s bottom line. At that, they also yield positive externalities: trees sequester carbon, increase biodiversity, and filter nutrient runoff. A tenet of Propagate’s work is to seek out and listen to those with decades of experience. What works? What has been consistently profitable? What doesn’t work? Why? Argentina’s Alto Valle is a lesser-known mecca of agroforestry, and it is well worth our time and attention. Our thanks go out to Norberto Serventi, Mauro Serventi, Julio Domingo Garcia, and Mariano Pla for their decades of hard work. Our vision is one of tree-centric landscapes and booming rural economies as far as the eye can see.

 Humans improving landscapes is a radical notion in sustainability. Let us push toward doing more good instead of less-bad. Let us become an integral part of a regenerative landscape instead of just leaving it alone.

Humans improving landscapes is a radical notion in sustainability. Let us push toward doing more good instead of less-bad. Let us become an integral part of a regenerative landscape instead of just leaving it alone.