20 Dec 2011

Bariloche, the Argentinian estancia and volcanic ash

Bariloche is situated on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi where kite surfers, sailers, jet skiers etc do their thang. The town is built mainly from wood in the alpine style and it is a ski resort, it is also the chocolate centre of Argentina (with great ice cream to boot), there are good restaurants and with a population of approx 120k it is of a size that matters – we had reached 'civilisation' once more after 5 weeks or so in the Patagonian wilderness.

The sad thing right now for the local populace and economy is that a volcano in Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle chain blew its top in June throwing loads of ash skywards which the prevailing winds then blew east and with Bariloche being right in the way, lots of the ash landed on the city and the surrounding area.

The ash looks like anything from big grey sand granules to a fine dust on every surface, until the wind blows in the wrong direction and the horizon then mountains then lake then far end of high street disappear and the locals don avian flu style face masks.

The airport has been closed since the eruption, so the only way in or out is by road which means the tourist traffic has dropped dramatically and approx 20% of the local population have already left looking for work elsewhere.

Each of our 5 days in Bariloche saw a different level of ash in the air as the winds came and went which meant everything from clear blue skies (revealing the beautiful lake and mountain backdrop) to visibility of no more than half a mile as we walked (the town and environs) cycled (30kms around various lakes and hills) and horse backed on our second gaucho style experience. And despite being totally covered in volcanic dust by the end of the day, this horsey excursion, on a much bigger estancia, in many ways topped the previous jaunt. 

The Argentinean estancia 101. 

Estancias are basically massive tracts of land where cattle and sheep graze the hard terrain of the Patagonian steppe. Sounds rough but it makes for some of the best quality meat on the planet, but why?

Our day in the saddle was led by Andrew, an Australian rancher who has lived and worked in Aus, New Guinea and Argentina and now manages this estancia of 25,000 hectares with an additional 10,000 hectares up the road (which is an area equivalent to approx the size of the Isle of White!) Andrew would finally explain the mystery of why Argentinean beef is so tender and tasty, but first a bit about the man and the history of our surroundings.

Andrew is a cross between Crocodile Dundee and the Marlborough man (still smokes Marlborough reds) – definitely someone more comfortable in the saddle than the office chair. He was also hugely knowledgeable on everything from farming to macroeconomics to business to wine to wildlife to veterinary techniques to the science and arguments of global warming (finding water where there isn’t any in Patagonia after 3 years of drought) Argentinian culture/customs, history and politics – a fascinating conversationalist whilst clip clopping (more of a silent whoosh through the ash) along.

Ben.. gaucho style

As it turned out the estancia (San Ramón) is owned by the family of a Swiss gentlemen (now deceased) who when in his twenties got bored with his family’s coffee trading business so he sold his share to his brothers for a modest sum and set up a chocolate company which he named Suchard. Not content with setting up just one hugely successful company, a few years later he woke up one morning and decided that job recruitment was the thing to get into so he established another new company which he called Adecco - a moderately successful couple of enterprises you might agree.

At some point he bought the estancia in Patagonia – he liked riding – and lived on it for a year or so with his family redeveloping and stocking it to become a proper working estate with a staff of 15. Each staff member is provided with a house on the farm for him and his family and all the children are put through private school – so as foreign owners go they are very good. In terms of size compared to other estancias, San Ramón is one of the bigger privately owned farms but small compared to many that belong to big corporates.

Other notable foreign owners of Patagonian estancias – Benetton have about a million hectares (twice the size of Norfolk) to supply all their wool, Ted Turner of CNN has approx 40,000 hectares which he has unfortunately de-stocked completely and keeps just for fishing trips with his mates (the official line is that it is to preserve the local wildlife).

If you would like to buy an estancia right now (land is available) 10,000 hectares of the best Patagonian desert shrub land will cost you approx US$2 million. To then stock it with 8,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle you are looking at a further US$700k. All that will net you an income of approx $250k per annum after all costs have been paid, so not a bad return in today’s climate. Let us know if you are interested and we can put you in touch with the right people.

So why is Argentinean beef so good? According to Andrew, our new font of all knowledge, it boils down to three things. Firstly the Argentinians have stuck to British breeds of cattle, predominantly the Hereford with some Angus in there as well, which are believed to be the best meat producing breeds on the planet. Secondly, they have avoided the North American doctrine of a corn based diet - apparently the corn causes a ring of fat around muscle that other diets don’t - whereas the ‘food’ available in the Patagonian steppe (supplemented with hay when required) does them just fine - and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they enjoy a stress free life having almost unlimited amounts of space to graze in and being moved from pasture to pasture very infrequently.

All in all a fascinating day where we covered about 20 kms around the farm and several different landscapes from open prairie to mountainous terrain to caves to rivers (more of a dribble). Lunch was a lamb from the estancia of about a year old (a hogget) spit roasted over the open fire whilst maintaining the crucifixion position, washed down with local Malbec – hard to beat.

In places the ash on the ground was a foot deep so the dust kicked up by the horses was impressive to say the least. Of course it is preventing what little grass that does grow from doing anything at the moment, but volcanologists have said it will both fertilise the soil and provide an insulation layer which will reduce the freezing effects of winter, both leading to richer pasture in 3 or so years.

Clearly in this context when a tough existence is made even harder than normal, now is the time to buy...

Maybe we should live here, all donations welcome!

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