Over Alfalfa Fields
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"Soon after breakfast we set out to explore, with a pair of native criollo horses and an American buckboard. We drove miles and miles over alfalfa fields most of the way, among fat cattle and among some that were not fat, seeing the great Australian tanks of galvanized corrugated iron, round tanks sometimes sixty feet in diameter and eight feet deep. As we went, George Wright talked; it is easy for him; he is an enthusiast. `This is one of the small places, Mr. Wing; it has in it only 25,000 acres. It is worth now about $32 per acre. Would you think it possible that so late as 1904 this land was wild, covered totally with the coarse, innutritious grasses of the pampas and with no water apart from some shallow pools that early went dry? Here is the old mudhouse in which we first made our start at subduing the wilderness. How do we do it? We usually call in the aid of the colonist; we let him land for sowing it to wheat. He plows it and sows wheat for from three to five years; then seeds alfalfa and moves on. He sows from 400 to 1,000 acres of land. He gives us about twenty per cent of his crop, de-livered at the railway. When he has a normal crop, it is around twenty bushels to the acre; when he has a big crop no one knows how much it is, for he can-not gather near all of it. An enormous amount is lost because of his inadequate equipment. He makes some money; we have one man, a Belgian, who has made a small fortune with us. Usually the colonist does not do that, and I have never known an Englishman to plant wheat at a profit; he makes it too costly a proceeding. The farming of these colonists is very crude, Mr. Wing, and they rob the soil. It worries me to think of their methods and what may come from them of damage to Argentina.'
"Here I laughed and replied, `Mr. Wright, nature has put in this soil enough plantfood for a thousand years. I feel sure that you need not fear the few years of wheat that the colonist has; the alfalfa will restore the land in short order. I know of no land of so uniform and widespread a richness as this.'
" `Well, that may be so, but I am beginning to sow alfalfa on the fresh sod, turned by myself. Come and see my plowmen.'
"What a sight that was, and how it would have enthused any one loving to plow. Imagine a smooth pasture field from which the grass had been mostly burned off—a field without stick or stone within 100 miles, limited only by the fences that were too distant to be in view. A dozen or more plowmen, each on his own particular land, turned over the soft black loam, using English two-furrow walking plows with wheels. A native plowman had started each land and the furrows were as straight as possible, and so long that the eye could not discern the ends. `How long are your furrows, Mr. Wright?'
" `Not very long; I do not believe in the long furrow—maybe a little more than a mile; if they are longer than that I think it a little hard on the horses. As it is, the men travel about twenty-two miles a day. You see we require them to plow a definite number of furrows morning and afternoon. It is fifteen miles back to the headquarters; we move every-thing over here; these few squares of galvanized iron make their tents; they have dug the well in short order and the water is good. Their cook and feed for their horses are here.'
"We drove among the cattle. `The place,' he said, `is not yet nearly developed, so we have only about 7,200 cattle at present and about 5,000 sheep. We breed almost all of our own cattle on the alfalfa, as you see. Alfalfa does no harm to breeding cows. It is bad for sheep, though; see what ruin it has worked with these Romney ewes.' It was rather laughable; the ewes scampered off as best they could as we charged down on them with our team. I have seldom seen such ewes. They were so fat that their legs did not come down parallel, but were spread apart comically; their backs were so broad that one could have emptied a peck of wheat on any one of them without losing any of it off. As they ran their rumps shook with the accumulated fat Indeed, as breeding ewes they were, probably, ruined, and yet they had been taken from the alfalfa and put on wild grasses for some time.
FLOCKS ON ALFALFA
" `We get fine, fat lambs on alfalfa pastures, but if we ever do a large business with sheep I think we will buy our ewes, breed them and when they get fat send them off with their lambs and buy more.'
"Through herd after herd of grazing Short-horns we drove, admiring the good breeding and the good flesh. `This is a paradise, Mr. Wright, Why do you not plant maize, tool It goes so well with alfalfa.'
" `It has not yet been proved here; we have the locusts, you know, and we have not labor enough to cultivate maize. What has been sown has mostly failed; the practice is to drill it in and let it come, or go, as it likes. It has not yet made a good crop.' Later, on a neighbor's estancia, I saw a field of maize, quite a total failure; the weeds and grass were three feet high and the maize four feet. `But I should not expect in Ohio much better results without cultivation'; I remarked. `No, maybe not, Mr. Wing; but we have not labor, nor patience, for cultivating maize here and then we have drouth and locusts. We do better to stay with our alfalfa, I think.' "
They sow a lot of seed—as much as twenty pounds to the acre, and sometimes it fails. It is sown., preferably in May or June—their late fall—and sometimes in August instead, their spring, and last year a very wide acreage, as large as my brothers' farms and my neighbors' farms combined, was lost. The land was a mess of weeds, as it would be in our southern states if alfalfa were sown there in the spring. "Last year I sowed $20,000 worth of alfalfa seed," remarked Mr. Wright. .
We came home to a good dinner. Mrs. Wright had provided for the North American guest most delicious cornbread made from yellow; meal. It was the first that I had tasted in Argentina. Their maize is all of the yellow flint species and would be simply delicious if they would use it. What a good bed I had that night and how I enjoyed it after my forty-mile ride ! Next day we drove to another beautiful estancia, Drabble. The manager, W. Mellville, was unfortunately absent, but we were shown about by the very courteous mayodomo, Mr. Talbot. There we saw the stacking up of thousands of tons of alfalfa in the fields ; animals eat it at will. What superior bullocks we saw, too. They breed and develop splendid Shires at Drabble. There also we stayed for dinner and a cozy. fireside, afterward racing with the train to see which first should reach the station. The ostriches leisurely plucked alfalfa.
It makes one quite wish to go out there to farm. There are, however, difficulties, mainly due to the climate and locusts. George Wright had planted some thousands of small trees about his new place. They started well. A hailstorm came (they call it a "rough" storm), and he had 1,200 of them destroyed, so that they had to be cut down to the earth. They would, however, in this soil speedily make swift new growth again. He finds the box elder of our land one of the good trees for his climate. For some reason that I do not fathom, the eucalypts do not thrive that far west. Then they have the locusts that come once in a while—perhaps yearly for several years, or perhaps none for several years. Locusts destroy gardens, trees, flowers and grain—all but alfalfa.
THE WOES OF COLONISTS
I have kept up a correspondence with Mr. Wright since returning home and this is the strange tale . that he tells of the behavior of the elements in 1912. I left Argentina, as it was well soaked with water. The colonists got their grain sown in some shape. It grew marvelously and promised a yield of thirty bushels of wheat to the acre. Harvest time came and with it rain. Now this strange land was not made for rain in summer; it will not bear the weight of horses or wagons when well soaked; so the colonists took their binders to the field and the rich black soil, turned to mud, promptly engulfed them. They could not harvest the grain. After a time in some manner they did get a part of their rank, tangled crop harvested; then came threshing. Traction engines proceeded out with threshers to get the grain; the treacherous black earth swallowed up the engines so that oft-times it took days to dig them out of the mire and set them on their way again. When at last the poor colonists got to market with their wheat they had only a fraction of what had grown; their expense had been dreadful; they were in many instances hopelessly ruined. I think, however, that of all the parts of Argentina that I saw, the opportunities for money-making were best in this great alfalfa-growing region, which ex-tends over into the state of Cordoba and also into Pampa Central.
When a really serious effort was made to set up stock-raising in Argentina, leaving the old system in which the uncounted herds roamed at will over the vast, unfenced, unmeasured pampas, there was need of fences of some sort. There. was not a shrub or tree for post timber; wire had not been made cheap enough for use, so they fell back on that primitive barrier, the moat. Ditches were easily dug in this soil. To dig the ditches they imported Irish-men, just as we did in North America. Doubtless the Irishmen came meaning soon to go back to old Ireland ; they ended by learning to love the land, just as already I, after barely 100 days, have learned to love it. Many of them forsook the spade and bought small flocks of sheep and rented land to put them on. I imagine the rentals were the merest nothing. The sheep cost but a trifle. They bred like rabbits. The wool only was sold. The thrifty Irish-men bought land; they became estancieros. Today their grandsons are men of influence and wealth. Quite commonly, they have intermarried among themselves, yet they all use the Spanish language more freely than the English, though commonly English is yet the language of the fireside.
A grandson of one of these Irish immigrants was my guide and interpreter throughout most of Argentina. He was a fine young man, educated at the Ohio College of Agriculture. He was a veterinarian and a man of promise—Dr. L. P. Garrahan. It was at his suggestion that I made my last visit of study in Argentina to the estancia of his uncle, Robert Murphy, at his estancia La Anita, west of Buenos Aires, a day's ride by slow train. It was a lovely day in June—their December.
ESTANCIA LA ANITA
Robert Murphy proved to be just such a man as one would find in the United States farming or in the cattle business, with maybe a little more culture and courtesy than we have had time yet to take on; a stout, healthy, vigorous man, every inch of him an estanciero and a lover of good cattle. His farm lies in the very good alfalfa-growing region, with the rich dark topsoil and the sandy subsoil that alfalfa loves. We went first to the estancia house—one of the comfortable and commodious, though modest, dwellings that rich estancieros provide for the comfort of themselves and their friends. There was a good fire blazing in the grate, for the time was near mid-winter, and the night air was chill. About the house were plantings of trees; willows that make fuel and shelter; American black locusts; red cedars (which thrive wonderfully) ; paraisos or chinaberry trees, which are proof against the locusts, and numerous ornamental trees, including some palms. The eucalypts here do not grow well; they seem to winterkill, though nearer Buenos Aires they grow marvelously, as they do farther south also, where it is much colder. The locusts had invaded his territory last summer. He had covered over his choice trees and flowers with canvas to protect them from these horrid pests. While we were looking at the garden an enormous bird came flying with piercing cries, toward us. To my astonishment it settled down within two yards of us and continued for a little time to emit its loud cries. Mr. Murphy laughed and talked to the bird, which seemed pleased and began eating grass on the lawn, now and then joining in the conversation in a voice that could be heard half a mile. It was a tame chaja bird, looking somewhat like a long-legged eagle, but subsisting mainly on grass.
We drove out to see the fields and the cattle, Mr. Murphy on the way telling us of his plans and procedures. "I have other estancias. This small one of 5,000 acres I choose to make my home place. Much of it is now in alfalfa, and I aim to put more land still in alfalfa; then it will carry perhaps a fourth more cattle than it carries now. What is the land worth? It cost me in 1901 $24,200 gold, and to-day it is worth in the market $272,800. That shows how land values have advanced in Argentina. It is earning on its present value more than 10 per cent. It is valued at only about $54 per acre ; you see the quality of the land. How does it compare with your best land in North America?"
To this I had to reply that it was much like the best lands of Nebraska, with the advantage that here there is no snow or ice and cattle can of course graze the year round.
"I have another place north of Buenos Aires with a much richer soil than this, and more rainfall, that I lease to men to grow linseed on. I get more than $19 an acre rental for that land, and I value it at about $140 an acre, gold. But of course such values are not common in Argentina, and I do not see how land can continue to advance in value, because as a rule it can not earn interest on higher valuations than are at present common.