The Wheat-fields Of Argentina
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHERE THEY ARE, AND WHAT THEY ARE—How THE GRAIN IS RAISED AND MARKETED—THE WHEAT FARMERS ARE ITALIANS, WHO LIVE IN MUD HUTSROSARIO, THE CHICAGO OF SOUTH AMERICA--THE LOCUSTS THAT COME FROM BRAZIL IN SWARMS AND EAT UP THE WHEAT—HOW THEY' ARE DESTROYED—THE FUTURE OF WHEAT-RAISING IN SOUTH AMERICA, AND ITS PROBABLE COMPETITION WITH THE UNITED STATES.
ROSARIO is the Chicago of South America. It is the chief wheat-market of the Argentine Republic. It is situated on the Parana river, about 200 miles by land from Buenos Aires, at such a point that ocean steamers can sail up to its wharves and load for Europe. It is about as far inland from the Atlantic ocean as Pittsburg, but the Rio de la Plata and Parana rivers are so deep that steamers drawing sixteen feet of water can reach the city at any time of the year.
Rosario has become important only since the wheat-fields have been developed. It was founded in 1725, but until a generation ago was an obscure village ; now it is the second city in Argentina. It grows faster than New York, and within the past ten years has doubled its population, having now about 150,000 inhabitants. It is well built, the streets crossing one another at right angles. It has daily newspapers, electric lights, telephones, and banks, and has recently been building up a large foreign trade, especially in the export of wheat.
Rosario is so located that the grain can there be loaded on the steamers more cheaply perhaps than in any other city in the world. The Parana river has cut its channel down into the soil to such a depth that the bluffs upon which Rosario stands are about seventy feet high. The bluffs are precipitous, so that the ware-houses which line them are higher than the masts of the steamers floating on the river. The wheat can therefore be transferred from the bluffs to the steamers by gravity. Each warehouse has a long chute running from the edge of the bluffs down to the river. The chute is made in sections, and is so arranged that it forms a trough from the bluffs right into the hold of the steamer, and so constructed that it can be lengthened and shortened at will.
The wheat is bagged at the farms: the cars carry it to the edge of the bluffs, and Italian labourers take the bags and lower them by means of the chutes. As soon as a bag touches the chute it begins to descend and speeds down the inclined trough into the steamer. The bags fly down one after the other in lively succession. At harvest time the wheat often becomes congested at Rosario; the railroads have more than they can do to carry the crop, and almost all other traffic has to be suspended. There is no such system of interchange of cars as we have in the United States. One company's cars cannot go over the tracks of another: the result is that the wheat is piled up in bags at the stations and left there until it can be shipped. I saw many such piles in different parts of Argentina. As there are no barns and as yet comparatively few elevators, the marketing of wheat is conducted on the most wasteful methods. The weather is such that nearly all the stock feeds out of doors the year round, only the finest of blooded animals being kept under cover. Even the working-animals are not fed, but have to rely upon what they can eat in the pasture fields. The result is that there is no chance for the farmer to store his wheat in barns, and he has to depend on the railroads to get it to the markets. The land is level, and there are no grades to speak of, so the freight rates should be low.
I believe wheat-raising in Argentina is still in its infancy. Twenty years ago the wise said that grain could never be grown in the region to any extent. The Argentines were then importing millions of dollars' worth of wheat every year, and the farmers who were pasturing stock on what are now the principal wheat-fields were eating flour shipped from the United States and Chile. Today, Argentina commands to a large extent the wheat trade of South America. It plants 3,000,000 acres every year, and it produces from 30, 000, 000 to 80,000,000 bushels a season, according to the weather and the invasions of the locusts. For the last seven or eight years it has produced from three-fifths to four-fifths of the wheat crop of this continent, and to-day it is shipping wheat to the different parts of South America as well as to Europe. When the Argentine has a good crop the prices of wheat in the European markets are affected and our farmers get less for their wheat in consequence. Within the past year or so flour mills have been springing up, and the Argentine has now more than 500 flour mills, many of which are using machinery imported from the United States. I had as fine bread for my breakfast in Buenos Aires as one can get at any hotel in New York, and as a rule the flour is as good as any we produce. A great deal of Argentine flour is shipped to Brazil and Uruguay, and some is annually sent to Europe.
The grain-producing area of Argentina increases every year. For a long time it was confined to the valleys of the Parana and Uruguay rivers, the only regions in which it was supposed wheat could be grown. Year by year, however, the farms have been pushed farther back, and now wheat is grown on an area as large as that of England and France combined. It is said that if all the Argentine land known to be good wheat land should be put under cultivation and it should produce an average of only ten bushels per acre, the total crop would equal one-half the annual wheat-yield of the world. The available wheat land is estimated at 240,000,000 acres, but of this only about six per cent is at present under cultivation.
A new wheat region is that of the south. The Argentine Republic is longer than the United States. I have gained a practical knowledge of its extent during the past few months, for I have been away down in Patagonia. I have travelled thousands of miles through tillable ground which has never been touched by the plough. Nearly 300 miles south of Buenos Aires there is a thriving seaport, called Bahia Blanca. There are big wheat warehouses there, and the railroad men tell me that they have more wheat than they can well handle. This wheat comes from the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a region enormous in extent and almost all of it good land.
Just south of this region there are vast pampas having scanty pasturage, which are usually looked upon as deserts. Through these pampas run the two great rivers, the Rio Colorado and the Rio Negro, or, in other words, the Red and the Black rivers. I travelled for days along these rivers in company with a party of railroad surveyors. The rivers are large all the year round, and their fall is such as to make irrigation possible for a wide distance along them from the Andes to the sea. In the future they will be bordered with irrigated wheat-farms, for the land is as rich as in any part of Colorado, Utah, or California, and its settlement and use is only a question of a few years. Already the Welsh, who have a colony much farther south, are growing wheat by irrigation ; they are now exporting about 5,000 tons a year, and this has all been grown on what until now was called the desert sands of Patagonia.
About Rosario and elsewhere in the valley of the Parant the soil is a rich, black loam from six inches to three feet deep, lying on a bed of clay. All the country for hundreds of miles above and below Rosario, comprising large parts of the provinces of Buenos Aires, Santa Fé, and Entre Rios, is composed of this soil, which is good for wheat cultivation.
I have never seen such poor farming anywhere as that of the Argentines: our own farmers are bad enough, but those of the Argentines are infinitely worse. In the United States the average yield of wheat per acre, taking in the entire country, is from twelve to thirteen bushels; that of the Argentine is not over ten. In England, where the soil is more carefully studied and cared for, the average is twenty-nine bushels per acre, in Holland twenty-five bushels, and in France eighteen.
Most of the wheat of Argentina is raised by Italian immigrants, many of whom farm the land on shares. They do their work in the most slovenly way. Much of the wheat is sowed on the ground as it is first ploughed, the grain being dropped among the clods. Other farmers drag brush over the fields, and some of the better farmers use harrows. The ploughing is done with bullocks, which drag the ploughs through the furrows by means of a yoke attached to their horns. No fertilizer whatever is used, and the farmers' only idea seems to be to get the wheat into the ground and then sit down and wait for the crop.
The life of the Argentine farmer would never suit our people, and no American could be happy here unless he brought his friends and associates along with him. I cannot describe the dreariness of the life. In most of the wheat countries there are no trees. The little mud hut of the farmer stands out alone on the dreary landscape. It has not a sign of comfort, and but seldom has a garden. The farmers have to buy everything; they run accounts at the nearest grocery and make annual settlements when they sell their wheat. Most of them drink to excess, and few have any thought beyond the prospects and the returns of the wheat crop. All have large families, and at the times of planting and harvesting all of them work. You may see boys of eight riding horses in the field and girls of nine and ten doing their share of the harvest. The lack of elevators and other conditions demand that the wheat should be quickly gathered and threshed; and at harvest time you will not find a harder-worked people anywhere than these farmers. Women and girls, men and boys, labour with all their might from sunrise to sunset; even when it is moonlight you may see them out under the stars binding and threshing wheat. It is the same in planting time, but between the seasons there is a long vacation.
The result of dependence upon wheat alone is that the failure of a crop means partial starvation. There is no reason for this, for the land is susceptible of growing a variety of things and, as ploughing can be done in every month of the year, the Argentine farmer could raise everything he uses. As it is, it is said that he can now produce wheat at a cost of from twenty-live to thirty cents a bushel. This may be so, but taking the average of good crops and bad crops, it is probable that wheat costs as much in Argentina as in the United States.
It is curious to see how the wheat is carried to the cars. It is hauled in bullock carts on wheels about eight feet high. A load, weighing several tons, is balanced between two of these wheels, and from a dozen to sixteen bullocks are harnessed in double file in front of it. As the cart moves onward over the rough road the wheels give out such a screeching that you think there must be a hog-killing near by. If you tell the farmer that a bit of grease on the axles would stop the noise, he replies that it is a necessary evil, and that the bullocks will not move unless they hear it. Upon some of the large farms modern machinery is used to put in the crops and all threshing is commonly done with European or American threshers.
Argentina is frequently subject to droughts, and the wheat-yield is great or small according to the weather. It is even more affected by the locusts, which are by all odds the worst pests of the Argentine farmer. The locust invasions, in fact, equal in their destructive tendencies the locust plague with which the Lord afflicted Pharaoh. The only difference is that Pharaoh had his locusts for a few days, but the Argentines seem to be having theirs as a regular thing. The plague does not ex-tend to the south; but for the past seven years the wheat farms of the Parand valley have been seriously damaged by it.
Many people believe that the number of locusts will increase from year to year, and that the country can never be free from them. They argue this from the location of Argentina. Situated as it is in the temperate zone, it has a delightful climate and a fairly good soil. Just north of it lies Brazil, which is covered with tropical vegetation, and vast areas of which will never be different from what they are now. In that country, it is claimed, the locusts have their breeding-grounds. They are produced by the million there every year, and as a swarm thinks nothing of a flight of 500 miles, it will be seen that an army starting out for plunder is a dangerous enemy. It is said that the locusts annually fly to the south, eating up everything as they go; formerly they were almost unknown in the region, be-cause the Argentines were then covered with the coarse grass of the pampas. This the locusts did not especially care for, but now, since they have learned of the juicy, green wheat, they come in myriads every year.
It is hard to realize what a destructive thing such an invasion is. The locusts appear in swarms so great that they darken the sun if they fly between you and it. They alight on every-thing green and begin eating. The branches of the trees bend down with their weight and you can hear the snapping of their jaws as they crunch the leaves. They will strip an orchard in a night. They often eat the flesh from the fruit, leaving the stones of the peaches hanging to the bare branches. They are capricious in their feeding, for all choice trees or those that have been especially cultivated are sure to be devoured. They will clean the crops from the fields, eating the grain down to the ground. Sometimes they will take the green wheat from one side of the road and pass by that on the other. Sometimes they fly on and on for days over rich fields to feed on those beyond. The next swarm to come may eat what is left.
It seems incredible to think of locusts stopping railroad trains, but this is actually the case in Argentina. They come in such numbers that they cover the tracks; the cars crush them; the rails become greasy, and the wheels spin round without touching them and without moving the cars onward. At such times the rails have to be sanded to enable the cars to run. Locusts even eat the paint off the houses.
As the locusts move over the country they lay their eggs. Each female locust makes a hole in the ground and lays a bout a hundred eggs, which a month or so later hatch out one hundred young locusts, who crawl forth and begin their march over the country. Their parents, it may be, have pretty well cleared up the crop, but the babies start out to eat what has grown up in the meanwhile. They cannot fly far at first, but they crawl along, consuming everything as they go. They cover the ground, climb the fences, and literally sweep the country of everything green. In a few weeks they grow wings and then fly onward to other feeding-grounds. No conception can be formed of the enormous numbers of these locusts. In one year sixteen tons cf eggs were destroyed in one place. Billions of eggs are now being dug out of the ground and crushed, and to-day the Argentine farmers are fighting for their lives with the locusts. Thousands of dollars are spent every year to kill them. At the time of an invasion all the farmers must turn out and destroy them. They are caught in traps of corrugated iron. They are scooped up with scrapers and killed; poisons are used and grass plants and weeds are sometimes sprinkled with arsenic, kerosene, and creosote. They are caught in bags, driven into ditches, and killed in all sorts of ways. But a mighty army of them remains to occupy the renewed and unceasing attention of the farmer.