The Orchards of Argentine Patagonia
Written by Harry Greene
We arrived just before the 2018 harvest. Sandro Saralegui is an apple farmer in Argentina’s Río Negro province. For 30 years, he’s been growing fruit for both the export market and local consumption. His family farm is on the banks of the Black River, half way east between the Andes Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, on the arid grasslands of northern Patagonia. The orchards are flood-irrigated with snowmelt. Poplar windbreaks tower above the fruit trees, and the birds are loud. Hogs turn the excess fruit into apple-finished pork, and cattle graze the understory of the poplar plantation. Apples and pears are the marketable product, but the journey is the destination. I’m here with Julio Domingo Garcia, a senior forester in the region. Let us walk you through how flood irrigation works. Why are the windbreaks so vital? Is this farm organic? Is it making money?
Without the river, this sea of green would not exist. The Río Negro is diverted through a network of canals, and irrigates 424,000 acres of orchards and cropland. Metal gates hold back the water, and farmers can turn the clouds on and off. The region receives only 7 inches of rain per year, and though the lack of humidity would theoretically reduce fruit production, pathogenic fungi don’t survive in the dry air. Farmers can plant trees extremely close together, because airflow and mold are not of great concern. Climate change and summer rains are changing this, however.
Planting windbreaks increases Grade-A fruit production by 19%. Fruit trees are now trellised, but they were all once free-standing, as most orchards are in New England. Windbreaks were once planted every 125 meters, which made for a “sea of wood.” Many rows are now spaced 250m apart, excess trees having been turned into crates and pallets. The capacity of a row of trees to reduce wind speed is dependent on that row’s density and the height of its trees. Downwind from a windbreak, a distance of 10-15x the height of the trees, the wind speeds up once again. The greater the desired wind speed reduction, the lesser the distance must be between windbreaks. To manage optimum density, i.e. how much air can pass through, windbreaks must also be thinned. The resulting timber, if well-managed, can be marketable.
Biodiversity and Management as an Ecosystem
Deep organics involves managing a farm as an ecosystem. Organic farmers sculpt nature to produce food, fuel, and fiber: they are masters of ecological balance. Sandro’s farm was once conventional. One day, 19 years ago, the sprayer drove by and coated his infant son with a cocktail of pesticides. “Never again,” he said, and immediately began the transition to organic. Organic farms always seem have more birds and less tension. The components work as a system: organic farming creates a flywheel of life with a deep understanding of natural processes. Fungi, bacteria, and larger microorganisms in the soil food-web break down carbon into natural fertility that plants can use, and in return the plants supply this soil life with sugars. Sprays of compost tea strengthen tree immune systems, such that they don’t succumb to disease in the first place. Predatory wasps feed on sap-sucking insect pests. Pheromone traps disrupt the mating cycles of fruit-eating bugs. Sticky traps catch apple sawflies. Foxes and birds of prey live in the chacra, feeding on tree-killing rodents. All things considered, organic farming is not just good for the world around us. It is good for our bottom line.
The Economics of Apple Production
We don’t have Sandro’s cost models. We neglected to ask for nine years of income statements, complete with inputs and labor hours. Maybe next time. What we can say is that management in this orchard is a tight ship. Sandro, his family, and his employees work hard, and they work smart. The farm is orderly and intentional, and they don’t take on enterprises that they can’t chew. Sandro’s orchards have existed for over three decades, and business acumen is a mainstay of the family farm.
Differentiation drives a gap between costs and revenues, and organic certification is that wedge. In the midst of a fruit crisis, with Chilean fruit imports flooding into Buenos Aires and undercutting Argentine producers, Sandro is not phased. Through the 1970s, family apple farms needed only 13 acres to on which to make a living. The 1976 coup d’etat, combined with the oil crisis changed all of that. When recycling the oil money of the day, banks affected fruit farmers. Now, conventional farmers need 60-75 acres to reach scale, which is a very large orchard. Acreage is relative to crop type: 75 acres of grass-fed beef is a small family farm, while 75 acres of espalier apples trees is a massive commercial operation. Sandro farms on 48 acres, and operates his own processing facility. His farm is large, but it is large due to competence and not necessity.
Drive is the number one indicator of success, regardless of industry. Organic apple farming in the United States is in a period of reinvention. During prohibition in the 1920’s, diverse cider orchards were cut down and replaced with conventional orchards that grew a limited number of apple varieties. For another 50 years, organic farming remained relatively unacknowledged, and the cultural knowledge of organic tree-fruit management was mostly lost. Today, consumer demand for organic food is experiencing double-digit growth, and fruits and vegetables are the largest segment of the market. The demand for organic food is also growing faster than the overall demand for food. Consequently, we want to eat more organic apples, but we’re not innovative enough to grow them at scale, at least in regions with humid summers. Innovative financing mechanisms are necessary to overcome such uncertainty.
Small farms are generally more diversified, and biodiversity breeds income diversity. Aside from A-grade fruit, Sandro’s family raises fruit-fed wild boar, cattle, and poplar timber. Much of the beef herd is managed in what is known as a silvopasture. Silvopasture is the intentional incorporation of trees and livestock. In addition to being grown as windbreaks, poplar is grown for saw logs. The trees shelter the cattle from the summer heat, cold winds, and desiccating air masses that flow across the steppe. Project Drawdown places silvopasture as the #9 most effective way to remove carbon from of the atmosphere. Silvopasture is well known in the Alto Valle, due to the need to produce wood without taking agricultural land out of production.