Farming Along The Chubut River
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Chubut River rises in the Andes mountains and flows through the entire length of the territory. Its upper reaches are through narrow valleys, untilled and often untillable. Its lower valley is from two to ten miles or more wide. The soil is black, friable and crumbling of its own accord into loose earth, not much afflicted with excess of alkalies and very rich and productive. It is the most southerly of the irrigated valleys of Argentina.
In 1865 there came the colony of Welshmen who settled on the Chubut. It took them some years to begin farming. In 1891 alfalfa came to them. It grew astonishingly. Other settlers came in and the valley became quite well farmed for a length of some thirty miles. The soil I should say is superior to almost any irrigated land in North America. Along the river there are irrigable lands for fully 200 miles. There are lands farther from the sea than .the present irrigated lands that are less subject to floods, and that have even a better climate than the lower valley. Some of these upper valleys are now quite unirrigated, awaiting transportation and people. This is one of the thinly-settled parts of the world. In 1895 there were in all the territory but 3,500 people, including Indians. In 1909 there were enumerated 18,000. Since then considerable growth has taken place, no doubt, so that there may be now 20,000 people in Chubut. A number of these people are in the Andean region, and are more in touch with Chile than with the coast of the Atlantic. It is a journey of two or three weeks between the western colonies and the ports along the Atlantic Coast. Madryn is practically the sole port of consequence.
The coast of Chubut has one of the finest climates of the world. Its sole disagreeable feature is the wind that occasionally prevails, but this is much less evident than is the wind of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. The heat of summer is some-times considerable, but there are rarely hot nights. Indian corn ripens, if it escapes summer frosts, which occasionally follow rains and southerly winds. Maize, however, is never seen save in gardens. Apples, peaches, pears, apricots, medlars, plums, cher-ries and even figs ripen. The eucalyptus tree is seen at Rawson. These facts show how mild must be the winter climate, although the inhabitants speak of it as being cold. There is rarely snow along the coast region. Snow falls in the Cordilleras, sometimes to a considerable depth. Sheep never suffer from cold or snow save in the Cordilleras. They may suffer from hunger in the coast region. We have no climate just the same in America; it is warmer than the coast of California, and cooler than the interior valleys of California. It may some day become a great fruit-growing region, as the apples and grapes of Chubut are as delicious as any in the world, though there are not more than ten producing orchards in the territory, outside of the Cordilleras. One orchard near Rawson sold in one year more than $10,000 (paper money) worth of fruit from three acres of land.
As one leaves the coast he finds the land and climate to be similar for a long distance inland. The uplands are tablelands of slight elevation, covered thinly with a number of species of shrubs and beneath the shrubs some grass. Sheep graze nearly all of these desert shrubs. They will hardly die of starvation while the brush remains. Thus while sheep in Chubut will not get as fat as on the grass ranges in Santa Cruz, they will be much less apt to die of starvation. The. scarcity of water has kept back this land from settlement and stocking. It is now practically bare of sheep. A map of the territory a year old shows nearly all of the eastern half of Chubut a blank; that is, it is all fiscal land and subject to sale and entry. In Santa Cruz a large percentage of land is taken; not so as to Chubut, if we except the lands of colonies, along the Chubut River in the Andean region and near ',ago Sarmiento, where there is a colony of Boers. In 1909 there were 18,957,230 hectares unoccupied in Chubut. In short, nearly all of Chubut is now unoccupied and almost unoccupiable chiefly on account of a lack of water.
There is said to be little or none of the territory that is unfit for sheep. It awaits the coming of the windmill, the well, the wire fence and animals. These are coming and yet there is room for a very vast increase in numbers. The testimony of Justo Alsua of Rawson is that in 1895 there were but 65,000 sheep in Chubut; there are now 5,000,000 and they are increasing rapidly.
Time did net permit me to see the Andean region where there are the finest lands, the best climates and the most animals. I am told that in the Cordilleras there is enough rain to make good grass; that there is timber enough for the needs of the people, and that the climate is delightful, only with sometimes rather deep snows in winter. There it is said that a league of land will carry from 2,000 to 8,000 sheep. In the coastal region it will carry but from 500 to 1,500 sheep to the league. The Cordilleras await a railway, which, it seems safe to say, is now under construction, running from Rivadavia inland in a northwesterly direction. There is also talk of . extending the railway from Madryn to the Cordilleras.
Alfalfa here is of easy establishment wherever there is irrigation, and is as rank in growth as any that I have seen in North America. It yields four cuttings per year. It is harvested with American machinery and hauled on American wagons ; in fact, in Chubut I saw none but American wagons and haying machinery, though the wheat is harvested by the use of Australian harvesters that cut off the heads and thresh the grain as they go. They are modern machines that require but four or six horses. I should estimate that alfalfa in Chubut would yield about six tons to the acre; it may sometimes yield more. The acreage is increasing, though the old canals in the valley are altogether inadequate for its irrigation needs, and the Welsh settlers of the valley lack the enterprise that would develop all of their land. No more than 10 per cent of the land in the lower valley capable of irrigation is in use; maybe 5 per cent would come nearer the accurate figure. This I observed in driving up and down the valley. Alfalfa seed yields as much as 1,000 pounds per acre, and even higher yields, though a moderate estimate would be about 600 to 700 pounds per acre. The alfalfa of Chubut is mostly baled and shipped away down the coast to the various ports of Santa Cruz and the ports of Chubut. Much also is hauled by wagon to interior camps and is consumed by freighters plying to the Cordilleras. I cannot accurately estimate the amount of alfalfa now grown in Chubut ; the valley is capable of growing a mil-lion tons if all of the water of the river ever is utilized. There is no engineering difficulty in taking out the water, though the descent of the valley is rather slight and the canals are necessarily rather long. The periodic floods of the valley do not injure land sown in alfalfa except to destroy the stand.
In the Andes it is said that alfalfa may also be grown even without irrigation. Apples also grow wild there, and were used by the Indians centuries ago. At time of my visit alfalfa hay was selling for about $10 (gold) per ton in bales and alfalfa seed for eighteen cents (gold) per pound. I think the wild apple forests of the Andes tantalized me most of all. The Spanish people call an apple a manzana ; just why I do not know. The Indians live by eating apples they call the manzanas. Very fascinating stories were told of the Andean hills and valleys, the marvelous lakes and rivers, and the thickets of wild apples. Nearly every thicket bore a different kind, but these were weeks away to the westward, where time would not permit me to go. I quote again from my diary :
"March 15: Few in Trelow speak aught but Welsh and Spanish, but I find marooned here a cultured and courteous Londoner who keeps a book shop. It is a curious little shop, containing a curious assortment of books in Spanish, English and Welsh. Some of them are so good that I imagine he bought them for his own reading. The dust of the streets is so thick that he must cover his counters with newspapers. He is a student of philosophy, teaches Spanish, sells books, reads, dreams and seems happy. My room at Hotel Español opens on to a patio or inner court. In the patio there are a parrot, receiving training in language, many caged canaries, and other small birds and many potted plants, dry and dusty. Among the plants is a stalk of maize with a small ear that the señora' proudly displayed to me. Very sweet little dark-haired senoritas play in the patio, or are they yet ninas? I have not yet learned the line between childhood and young ladyhood, but these are under ten years of age, so I think they must be ninas. There are dogs of various ages in the patio and I think a few fleas for good measure. It is a little world all of itself.
"My room is the typical one of Spanish hotels. It is windowless, but has glass in the door and also a shutter that lets in some air when it is open. The senora makes also other beds in the patio, and I wish that I were the lucky one to sleep there. My language grows in volume if not in quality. My pajamas being in sad need of repair, I looked through my dictionary and found the words for needle and thread, `aguja y hilo,' and gravely begged these of the senora. `Por coser, señor?' ('for sewing'), wonderingly. I replied, `Si, senora,' and she laughingly captured the offending pajamas and took them away for repairs. The señoras at Spanish hotels are far more efficient than the husbands; these usually are mere drones in the hives, samplers of wine and ornaments in conversation. Again I was proud when at luncheon I could ask the `mozo' (waiter) whether the `pan' (bread) was made of `trigo' (wheat) of Chubut. He replied that it was not; and I asked again in Spanish `Is not your wheat bueno?' To this he replied that indeed their wheat is good, but that as yet they do not grind it in Chubut.
"The days are hot but the nights cool and the mornings chill, so I have my several cups of hot water and cream and my roll and butter at a little table set in the sin of the patio in company with the parrot, the canaries and the playful dogs. This morning when I had finished breakfast as I was going to my room I observed the big, hungry puppies looking wistfully at my table on which reposed yet some bread and the cup, plate and cream pitcher. A rude jolt would overturn the frail table, so in troubled tones I called, 'Ah, senora, dos perros!' That sounded like `those dogs;' but really I had said `Madam, two dogs' when really there were many more than two dogs in the patio. However, the senora with smiles came running to the rescue.
"This morning there was commotion in the patio. The man who slept in the bed under the sky was up before day, preparing to start for some place far inland. He hoped to make twenty-five leagues today. He appeared to be a Frenchman, with his pointed beard, top boots, new riding breeches and elegant way. It was interesting to see the preparation for his journey. He had much aid in gathering his things together and packing them away. The senora helped most efficiently. There was much talking and gesticulation; it seemed that something was lost. The senora rapidly ran-sacked his bags of stuff and finally his pockets ; he stood meekly through the ordeal. Presently the missing hair brush was found, rolled up in his pack. Then soon after sunrise they got off in a two-wheeled cart, a wee senorita sitting beside him and the hotel folk assembled at the door to wish him `adios.'
"Each morning the old cocinero (cook) brings the parrot from the closet, where it has been confined, places it on its perch and sitting down beside it begins to peel potatoes or do some other task, meanwhile giving Polly a lesson in Spanish. It is given one syllable from el Cocinero, one from Polly, another from el Cocinero, a response from Polly, and so on by the hour. That is the way to learn a language. I should like to have the cocinero give me lessons in similar manner. In the evenings I used sometimes to sit and read with a sweet little señorita of seven. We used the little primer of the country and it was delightful to hear her rattle off the sentences, pointing with her tiny finger to the pictures that illustrated the words. It is amazing how much clearer is the enunciation of children and of women than of men. I have grave difficulty in comprehending words when men speak them, but little when I hear them spoken by children.
"March 17: I drove to Rawson, the capital of Chubut. It is a strange old forgotten town, near the sea, and while it is really not older than forty years it appears to be 400. Among the rough cobblestones of the streets were growing and blooming glorious poppies of the variety that we call California poppies or escheholtzia. As is my custom, I gathered seed. The flowers seemed larger than in North America. A dry, dusty, stagnant place this is, with no agriculture near and probably not more than a dozen visitors arriving in a day, but the Governor lives here, the territorial chief of police and other officers, and there is a garrison of soldiers, mostly lads doing their year of service. This, once the capital of the Welsh colony, has not a single Welsh family. Thus does the rising tide of Latin humanity overflow the little isolated colony. All the lower part of the town except the church had been swept away by the river's flood some years ago, and never rebuilt. I think I never saw a lonelier or a sadder spot. With my companion I visited the barracks and met some fine, straight intelligent young men. One was of English parentage, a hand-some fellow, but he had lived so long in the Andes that he could speak only Spanish.
"Poor old Rawson, pathetic remnant of happier days, will probably be some time quite deserted, as it is away from the railway, away from the sea and has not even agriculture near it. The chief of police of Chubut is Senor Justo Alsua. He has an estancia near Rawson, where he has fenced in some leagues of desert and stocked with sheep. We went to his home, which is on the banks of the river. There I wandered happily in a lovely garden. Figs ripened, roses bloomed and there were great masses of the golden broom all ablaze. In front of his white-walled Spanish house were eucalyptus trees. That shows clearly how different is the climate from that of Boston, which is in nearly the same latitude, but Boston would have a surer and hotter summer.
"Here I mark another -astonishing thing. The pretty gardens that I see are those belonging to the Spanish or Italian people and not as a rule to the Welsh. I had expected it to be the other way. Senor Alsua is an enthusiast as to the merits and possibilities of Chubut. The territory can carry several times its present number of sheep, he thinks, and here they make the grazing better rather than worse as they feed over it. They nibble the brush and make it to shoot out finer and more appetizing, I presume, though he thinks that they also improve the grass. This is the land of the Rambouillet-Merino, though the Romneys are used to some extent. Lin-coins are used, too. He finds that he secures the largest crops of lambs from his Romney ewes; next come the Lincolns, then the Rambouillets. They allow a sheep four acres, more or less, for its winter and summer grazing. In poor desert camps it must have more land. There is one great estancia, the Lochiel, with 60,000 sheep on about 250,000 acres.
"Senor Alsua had come down here from the north, from the state of Entre Rios. From there he had brought good sheep, his enthusiasm for doing big things well and his love of a garden. I asked for an estimate of the cost of establishing an estancia of 25,000 acres, renting an adjoining tract of the same size. This estimate is so interesting, as it illustrates the few things needed and their relative importance, that. I will give it entire. The figures are in Argentine paper dollars, worth about 42 cents in United States currency :
Four leagues (25,000 acres). of land $ 40,000
This in United States money is $47,565. Following is the estimate (in Argentine paper) for operating expenses :
Wages of four shepherds, one year $2,400
Estimated income from 24,600 kilos of wool, at 56 cents, $13,776.
There are also 6,400 lambs, which are added to the flock. This makes the second year's wool clip 49,000 kilos of wool, bringing $27,440. My only comment on these estimates is that if Senor Alsua were to select the land, locate the estancia, buy the sheep and give them his personal care he might make some such profits as are indicated—and they grow rosier as the flock increases, but there have been many men driven into bankruptcy by attempting to grow wool in Chubut. As in Santa Cruz much depends on where one locates, how far one must haul wool and on many other factors, management being one of the essentials. Chubut will never send out floods of fat mutton; the country is too arid for that, but here will originate a great amount of good wool. About the hardest thing is to get water. Down through the dry gravel beds they go for 300 feet before they find it, and then in many cases it is unfit for human consumption.
Senor Ithel Berwyn is son of a Welsh immigrant and has now an estancia inland just where the brush-covered plains begin to give way to the grassy country. He has about 75,000 acres; not all of it is under fence. On this tract there are 1,000 mares, 3,000 cattle and 12,000 sheep. The cattle are of the Short-horn and Hereford races, the horses Hackney, Clydesdale and native Criollo stock, and the sheep Rambouillet and Lincoln. Since he is on the river, he grows alfalfa, so that in win-ter he can feed his pure-bred sires a little if they chance to need it. His surplus horses are sent to market in Chile. Since there are no wolves in the land, it is easier to keep sheep than with ranchers on our western mountains and plains, but the little foxes give trouble; they bother nothing but the lambs.. Senor Berwyn's shepherds care for the sheep on unfenced range, seeing only that they come together at night to sleep.
Although Rawson was dry, dusty and forsaken, down by the river was a little irrigated fruit farm of no more than three acres, and yet a little paradise when one entered it. I wandered down there, attracted by the greenness. Great quince trees were laden with big, yellow fruit, and pear and peach trees would have broken down had their branches not been upheld by props. The Italian senora gathered me two enormous bunches of grapes and brought me a chair and table, placing them under a pear tree. The grapes were pink and purple and green, with all intermediate shades, and were sweet, melting and altogether delicious. It seemed impossible that I could eat them all and I felt fairly piggish to do it, yet "poco a poco" (one by one) the grapes disappeared. They were far more tender and delicious than the grapes of California, al-though belonging to a similar class. Then I bought a pear that weighed a .pound, as I learned afterward, and carried it off as a trophy.
This was my first contact with the gardening class of Italians in Argentina. The señor was a fine, stocky, active, intelligent man, proud of his wonderful garden of fruit. He had windbreaks of poplars about it, as the winds are strenuous. The señora had a fine face, full of intelligence, patience and duty. There is something very fine about the best Italian character. They last year sold from their garden fruit to the value of $10,000, sending much of it to Buenos Aires.
I quote from my journal: "My legs needed stretching, so I walked out from Trelew today. The wind blew hard in my face, but I felt so well that I did not care. First I passed an empty plain of curious, crumbling black earth, unirrigated. They say that the irrigation system is wretched, not of a fourth its needed capacity, and that the owners are very backward and stubborn. Past the barren land I came to wheatfields, with very good wheat too, and then alfalfa and tall poplar trees for all the world just what one would see in Utah. There were small lots of sheep in the pastures, kept there for home use, for this is the land of mutton-eating. Sheep feed all the people of Argentina. By the river rested the great, gaunt oxen of the Cordilleras, weary after their long journey down with wool. A plain little brick church attracted me; in the churchyard were many graves, and on the headstones only Welsh inscriptions. I turned in at a garden and chatted with the Italian gardener, proud that I could speak enough Spanish to converse even in a primitive manner. He says that it is too cool here for maize, if one irrigates; that the wind blows more than he likes, although he has a thick planting of Lombardy poplars about his garden; that his grapes are just beginning to bear. The frost has nipped his squashes and may get the beans that he is watering.
"At. the hotel some one left me a package of glorious big yellow and red apples, fall pippins I think they are, and for dessert we have grapes. It is evidently a land fit for mankind. I am interested in seeing how the Spanish influence floods over all and extinguishes all else. At my table were two men, one evidently not of Spanish blood, yet he spoke more fluent Spanish than his companions, and English haltingly.
"March 19: In the afternoon I went driving with Ellis Thurtell, the English bookseller, who likes now and then to close his shop. We drove across the river to see a fine garden, kept of course by an Italian. It was a marvelous place, full of smallish but heavily-laden trees of peach, apple, plum, loquat, prunus simoni, medlars (very curious) and grapes. The grapes were easily the finest that I have ever seen. The Italian gardener is from the Piedmont region in Italy. Their little house was embowered in flowers, the porches screened with morning glories. There was a look of refinement and character in the faces of his wife and mother. For a little basket of fruit, chiefly grapes and peaches, I paid $2 or about 84 cents, which is dear, but then it was worth that much to see the garden. There are only about half a dozen gardens like it in Chubut. Some day probably Chubut apples and other fruits will be famed in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and London.
"Mr. Thurtell told me frankly about the difficulties of Chubut. For thirty-one years after the settlement there came no floods at all, so settlers built anywhere their houses of adobe mud, placed conveniently on their farms; then came the water and houses melted away. Once for eight months their land was under water, and it came again the next year. Usually the water is not more than two feet deep. I should think that dykes would hold it off, at least from a part of the valley, which is in many places ten miles wide.
"As we approached a little Welsh cottage on the river bank, Mr. Thurtell remarked, `I must stop here; these people would hardly forgive me if we did not, as they are old friends.' In the dooryard were many gay marigolds. The housewife made us welcome and shy little red-haired lassies washed the dinner dishes with water heated in a kettle hanging in the fireplace, beneath which burned small sticks. The lassies were amused when we called them `senoritas,' and spoke to them in the Spanish tongue.
They attend the Spanish school and know the language quite well, although their mother knows none of it. They cut for us thick slices of bread from a loaf as big as a peck measure and gave us good tea. There was the merry click of an American mower outside, cutting the last crop of alfalfa.
"At my hotel I did a very daring thing : I washed my window with my bath towel. I hope the senora will not observe it and take offense. A wee senorita comes to sweep and make my bed. I will give her one of my big yellow apples. She takes it with grave, yet smiling courtesy—'Muchas gracias, señor, es muy, muy linda,' which means, "Many thanks, sir; it is very fine.'
"How I admire the splendid enthusiasm of the Spanish people. In their conversation I often wonder whether there may not be a revolution brewing. At the table today there was so animated a conversation, with so many gestures, that I felt sure it presaged something serious. However, it turned out to be a discussion of whether or no to order another beefsteak, which feat was finally consummated. Steaks here come `hot from the cows,' as there is no ice or refrigeration and meats are not kept any length of time; in fact they are eaten be-fore they are cold.
"March 19 (Sunday) : Since the service in the churches is all in Welsh or Spanish I walked out into the desert instead of attending services. The shrubs are curious; some of them seem to have never any normal leaves—doubtless because there is little moisture to be transpired in this land. I observed the little tucotucos or native guinea pigs and wondered how they lived without water. Some of the shrubs bear strange little blooms, now late in their September. There are here great nests of ants. I watched for a long time a procession along an ant highway leading from their nest, or city, out into the surrounding country. They bore burdens of leaves, sticks and little pebbles, all for the higher upbuilding of their city. Some carried tiny blossoms of plants—these I assume for food. It was fascinating to see them meet and converse for a time with their feelers. Perhaps the ant going in told the outgoing one where to find a particularly awkward stick or leaf that it could find and bear. I can not see that ants are wiser than mankind; both toil for things that they have not and both fail to appreciate the things they already have, hopelessly ignoring the simple life. In the town a new house is building; I smile to see with what zealous care men toil to shut out the sun and the air; there is not even a balcony on which one might sleep. People in many parts of the world are still cave-like in their habits.