Italian Colonists

When the Italian gets money ahead he puts it in a bank and gets a small interest on it, say 3 per cent. He wears better clothes, his children are educated in good Argentine schools, he rides in a better vehicle, and is in most ways measuring up to a higher standard of living. Very often he plans to return to Italy to live, but the return is changed into a mere visit; he cannot endure the life of Italy after years of life in Argentina. He finds that he has outgrown his old surroundings and that the middle-class people of Italy into whose class he has really advanced refuse to give him recognition. There he must reassume the station of a mere peasant, and this he cannot do, so he returns to Argentina.

The Italian farmer or colonist sometimes saves enough money to buy land of his own, although not as a rule in the colony where he has lived, for the landowners holding the estates on which are situated the colonies seldom divide them or sell in detailed parts. As a rule, it takes him quite a long time to save enough to become a landowner. He builds his own house and on going away takes with him such parts as he can use again. Usually the walls are of adobe; sometimes it is built of bamboo poles, laid close together, and plastered with earth. A house need not have the warmth that is necessary in North America, since snow is unknown.

The share that the colonist gives to the land-owner may be 20, 30, or even 35 per cent, depending on the location of the land, its nearness to the railway, and the market. Then the colonist often hires a man to help him with the spring plowing and seeding (for maize), or the fall work for wheat, and gives him a share in the crop as his expected reward for his labor. This is a matter that varies according to location. It is not easy to learn what actual wages the colonists pay. They try so far as practicable to hire recent immigrants, for very low wages—lower than would be the rule of the country.


Mr. Coffin’s land is largely rented for maize culture. The land is plowed (if it is virgin camp it is cross-plowed), harrowed and planted with American corn drills in rows from 30 to 40 inches apart. Formerly it was planted much closer, but experience has shown the wider planting to be the best. It is harrowed once after it comes up, and cultivated once. It has not been found that frequent cultivation has increased the yield in time of extreme drouth, though in times of normal rain it has helped. The yield is from nothing to 40 bushels of shelled corn to the acre. Yields of 80 bushels are not unknown. The deadly drouths come in cycles of about seventeen years, with lesser drouths between. Locusts come more often; they were this year highly destructive, but it is about time, Mr. Coffin thinks, for them to disappear. Mr. Coffin himself sometimes hires labor and puts in a crop. The following scale of wages is paid:

Plowman, $22 per month, with food, $35.20 (gold) per month.

A less skilled plowman for less, $30 per month. The men work only during winter and spring at these wages. After this they work at harvesting for from $2.20 to $2.75 (gold) a day, board included. The horses that the colonists use cost them $35 to $45 each. They buy unbroken horses for from $22 to $30 each. American machinery costs about the same as in the United States, or a little more.

The colonist prefers to buy alfalfa rather than grow it. He can often cut it on shares, giving one-half or perhaps two-fifths or three-fifths to the landlord, according to the demand for hay. At present alfalfa hay is dear, because of the drouth; it is worth $12 per ton.

The plain facts seem to be that Argentina is a country of poverty, despite the inherent riches of the soil, which are very great. This poverty comes from the vicissitudes of the weather. Nowhere in North America would farmers live in the mud huts in which most colonists live. Nowhere would they be content to be surrounded by so few comforts and no luxuries. Drouths and locusts make vegetable gardens difficult or impossible in certain years. Fruit trees are not seen on the grain-farms, as a rule. The Italian colonist, with great industry, working long hours, with all his family assisting, aided by the rich, easily tilled soil, and a climate that makes practically outdoor living possible, grows the grain, but an American farmer would rebel at these conditions.


We also secured from Senor Julian Parr of Parr and Manfredi, Rosario, an estimate of the cost of growing wheat. I copy it here, using terms familiar in America :

Plowing per square, four acres $ 1.98 Harrowing 00 Sowing and rolling 1.10 seed 3.52 Total $10.78 Average yield, 362-3 bushels cost $10.78 Threshing 3.96 Bag, cartage and railway freights 5.10 Total $19.84

Thus in this estimate it costs to produce 36 2-3 bushels nearly 53 cents per bushel, which is labor cost alone. The tenant farmer gets say 65 to 75 per cent of the crop, depending on his location. If he receives 70 per cent his. share is 25.66 bushels, which cost him $19.84, costing him to produce it a little more than 76 cents per bushel. To figure that the man owned the land would necessitate a valuation of it, say $25 per acre, though that would .be a low valuation for good wheat land in Argentina.

A square (four acres) of land would then cost $100, and interest and taxes would be about $9 per year. This makes about 78 cents per bushel for production, thus :

Labor cost of 362-3 bushels $19.84 Add taxes and interest 9.00 Total cost $28.84

Cost of one bushel, approximately .78

If there is a crop failure it falls entirely upon the tenant; that is, he must bear the cost of the labor and seed (he is saved the threshing expense) and in addition he must sometimes pay a cash rental for the use of the land that year equal to what the value of the crop would have been had he made a crop. And so he might have paid at least $8 per square, cash rental. This seems incredible, but I am assured of its accuracy. Thus he would lose during that year of crop failure in plowing and seeding $7.26, and in addition the rent, say $8, or in all, $15.26. This loss divided up between the good years, say one year in seven years, would mean a little more than $2 yearly additional cost and would bring up the cost of production to about 85 cents per bushel.

The bare cost of seeding and harvest is charged at the lowest rates. Between seeding and harvest the farmer has no employment. We have made no charge for superintending or for the value of his time while he is watching his crops grow. It is not often possible for him to find other employment.

Señor Parr’s figures are low as to cost of plowing and seeding. With hired labor, as Mr. Coffin has shown, a plowman receives at least $1 per day. Even with the large plows in use he will take 1½ days to plow a square, with four animals, worth say, $160, and a plow costing $50 or more. The use of the animals is worth at least $1 per day, and of the plow 25 cents. Thus it costs $2.25 at the lowest per day for the plow-team; 1 1/2 days then would make $3.37 per square and not $1.98 that Señor Parr estimates, and harrowing, seeding and rolling would cost in like proportion.

It is impossible to escape the conviction that the Argentine colonist is working for less than his work should be worth in the market; that his recompense is less than anyone would accept in the United States, and that he accepts it here because it is an improvement on his condition in Italy.

This is near a true estimate. It is not perhaps so much a question of what does it cost the Argentine to grow wheat as “what will he willingly grow it for?” The latter question is not difficult to answer. It must be borne in mind that the colonist is almost always an Italian or a Spaniard (there are also colonies of Russians) ; that he is used to poverty; that he has really a chance here, even under hard conditions, to better himself in the world. He will continue to come and will take what the fates send him in the way of harvests. How much lower in price wheat might go before he would give up and the land go back to grass and cattle, I cannot guess. There is a rumor that at present colonists are nearly starving in the West, in Pampa Central and western Buenos Aires; that they are so desperate that they are stealing sheep for food.

The life of the Argentine farmer is one of variety. It began to rain in tremendous downpours early in May. (I refer of course throughout this book to the year 1911.) Thus wheat seeding went on fairly well, excepting that the poor work animals, weak because of drouth and scant feed, proved a handicap. The rich, black earth shot up the wheat plants with amazing luxuriance. When I left Argentina the fields were beautiful. One of my estanciero friends wrote me later about the outcome in his part of the province of Buenos 3 ires. There must have been a crop of 30 bushels to the acre on the ground, but yet it rained. The soil of his province is all an alluvial deposit, not meant for rain. Plowed fields will not support the weight of animals nor machines, the binders sank down in the mud and the crop could not be harvested. Finally, with great labor and difficulty, a part of it was got in to the shock and threshing time approached; the engines used in threshing the wheat disappeared in the ‘mud. Some-times it would take days to rescue a traction engine from its grave in that rich, black, fat soil. When at last the colonists got their wheat to market they had less than 10 bushels to the acre in this particular region—which is not 30 bushels, as they had hoped to have. They do not have the fields fenced, so they can not turn hogs in to consume the refuse, as we would do in North America. The maize crop under these conditions, however, was glorious, so the colonists were not quite ruined, although greatly disheartened.