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Part 5 – Fruit Farming in the Rio Negro Territory

In 1910 the Argentine Government commenced work on it scheme for the irrigation of 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) in the Rio Negro valley, a depression two leagues in width, scoured through the “altiplanicie” (plains).

The succeeding deposits of silt have formed a soil where potential fertility is second to none, but unfortunately the inadequate rainfall has prevented fruit culture except within isolated areas on the riverbank, where phenomenal produce has resulted and which the world did not seem to know about until the Argentine Government started the irrigation works in combination with the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway.

The author does not intend to record the technical aspects of that scheme, with which he is fully conversant from its inception until his departure from the Argentine in 1936. Indeed, he rode horseback through those areas prior to the development and from time to time was charged with missions arising while the work was in progress and during the succeeding years when the irrigation and fruit farming were in full swing.

To compare the prolific and continuous orchards now in full production over a length of valley of 125 kms with the wasteland, as the author first remembers it, is indeed a revelation. The fruit growers are drawn from all nationalities and are indiscriminately distributed over the irrigated area. However, two distinct colonies exist: the English who are established at Cinco Saltos and the Italian at Villa Regina.

The former consists of some 50 families and is wholly drawn from the educated class. Social life, as may be expected, takes prominent position in everyday life: golf, bridge, polo clubs, to say nothing of the tennis parties, provide ample diversion for those that way inclined.

The railway intersects the area longitudinally through its 120 kms with 17 stations, giving ample convenience for communication with travel to Buenos Aires and for the transport of produce. Indeed, during the season, February and March, special through fruit trains run every day. Both trunk roads and access roads to the stations are in most instances constructed of earth and pebbles and are highly serviceable, they make good running for motor cars and high lorries which, as in Europe, have displaced horse-drawn vehicles. The distance from Buenos Aires to Cinco Saltos, which is at the outer confines of the irrigated zone, is 1210 kms and the timetable allows four passenger trains, three leaving BA at 8am respectively on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and one leaving at 6:38 pm.

These trains are express services and include sleeping and restaurant cars and give a similar degree of convenience and comfort as is experienced on the long distance trains in Great Britain. The fares and dining car charges are much the same. The duration of the journey is 26 hours.

An outline of the fruit moved by the Southern Railway from the irrigation zone during the year 1936-7 will give interesting reading as follows:

[Extract from BAGS report]

The climate is exhilarating and generates energy on account of a low percentage of moisture in the atmosphere. Here Kipling’s immortalised “long long the diamond weather, the sky’s unaltered blue” is exemplified and particularly applies to Autumn and Winter. The only fly in the ointment is the “gentle” zephers who pay periodic visits, sometimes for days on end, during the Spring and Summer, raising clouds of fine dust which percolates into everything and through all chinks in its trail, then indeed life is not so pleasant.

To abate the force of these winds, the colonist plants schemes of poplars to protect his orchards. During the crucial periods of the fruit season frost causes horrible damage, hail has occurred on a few occasions locally, but the statistics of the consignments will demonstrate that “wash outs” of the harvest do not occur.

The mean altitude of Cinco Saltos near the western confine is 280 mts above sea level that, at Chichinales, the eastern confine, is 195 mts, accordingly 85 mts of uniform fall applies to the 120 kms.

Erosion from floods sometimes causes damage to the riverain farms, necessitating protection and which is economically affected with brushwood, wire and gabions filled with gravel. Disastrous flooding has been allowed for at the head works of the irrigation system where 1800 m3 of flood water can be diverted into an enormous depression called Lake Pellegrini.

Taking everything into consideration, there are few corners of the world where fruit growing is so successful, under pleasant circumstances and in such a congenial climate.

A few words concerning the commercial prospects may be welcomed by the prospective fruit farmer.

Land of course continues to increase in value as development proceeds, the number of settlers grows and the profits become known, thus increasing the demand for farms.

It would seem superfluous to mention that 30 years ago parcels of land now under irrigation could have been purchased for 10-20 pesos the hectare (2 acres). Fertile land today, but otherwise undeveloped, ranges from 500-1000 pesos per hectare (£1 – 17 pesos at the present rate of exchange).

With fruit trees in production the values fluctuate, contingent upon the kind of apples or other fruit and of course what an average crop has realised, 5000 per hectare would not buy many of the high class farms.

The prospective fruit farmer has to choose between the purchase of undeveloped land at 800-1000 pesos or the “in production” at say, 5000 pesos per hectare, or he may find a place between these two extremes, according to the age of the trees.

Should he be young and elect the former alternative, he will need to maintain himself until the trees come into production, say 6 years, and a four roomed house reasonably comfortable will cost him 10,000 pesos. The base necessities of life, allowing for vegetables, fowls, eggs which he can produce himself, the monthly bill for two persons should be well under 100 pesos per month. The water rate is 10 pesos per hectare per annum.

Trees are planted 6 mts apart, therefore 250 go to the hectare and the number of “boxes” that are obtainable per tree depends upon the energy and ability of the husbandmen.

The new and inexperienced arrival will find every reasonable assistance and advice extended to him by the established colonists; indeed, an experimental farm is maintained by the Southern Railway whose object is to demonstrate fruit growing and to give advice to all interested parties who are settled within the zone or are prospective settlers.

Before the chapter on Rio Negro colonisation is closed, it should be added that plans for extension of irrigation down the valley from Chichinales is in hand and actually the work has started, and stopped, as is often the case with government projects.

The distance to the estuary of the Rio Negro from Chichinales is approximately 100 leagues. Where the valley broadens the soil is equally fertile and less, very much less, levelling is necessary preparatory for planting orchards. The river carries an abundance of water and it is, in passing, strange that with the additional advantage of the lesser distances to Buenos Aires and to the port of Bahia Blanca, that this lower part of the valley was not selected for the initial experiment.

As 500,000 hectares of valley land are contained over the stretches mentioned and literally the wonder is that the further development by irrigation is not actively pursued. Imagine what such extension means to a new country and to the Buenos Aires Southern Railway.500,000 hectares at a rate of 5-10 hectares per family, means an additional population of 250,000 people and the increase of values from say a “present market one” of 20 pesos to say 5000 pesos once full developed, to 2,500,000,000 (two thousand five hundred million pesos = £400m) and yet apathy and procrastination prevail.

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updated: 29 January 2014