On the rugged outskirts of the small, progressive town of El Bolson in the Rio Negro province of southern Argentina there is place where two rivers collide in a secluded valley. This is where one can find La Confluencia, an agro-tourism lodge and farm run by Ellie and Mark Jordan, two American expatriates who have been living here year-round since 1995. They began farming here the following year. The story of the Jordans’ foray into agriculture is one worth noting, considering the fact that neither of them have farming backgrounds. It all began some years before when Ellie gave Mark the Square Foot Gardening book and Mark began growing vegetables as a hobby. Now they run a beautiful farm that effectively uses some of the best practices out there.
Situated on 700 acres within a national forest reserve, the Jordans’ property is a retreat where guests can come to enjoy the peace, eat the food that is grown on-site as well as learn a thing or two about sustainable agriculture and building while they’re at it. The Jordans employ a variety of methods and practices both new and old in order to be as self-sustaining as possible. The result is a well functioning stretch of land that works with the local ecosystem to provide food and shelter to its occupants and guests.
As stated above, La Confluencia is comprised of 700 acres in total, the majority of which is kept in forest due to the steep nature of the landscape. About 30 acres are cultivated for the production of animals, vegetables and other useful plants. The crops here are wide ranging and include vegetables such as cabbage, peas, broccoli and members of the nightshade family; fruit trees like plum, cherry and apple, as well as a few different varieties of berries. Also grown are hay and cereals for the consumption of the horses, milk and meat cows, oxen, and Scottish black face sheep. In addition, there is a kitchen garden with herbs both native and conventional. Before it was purchased by the Jordans, the land was used from time to time for grazing by local shepherds.
There are many things that set this location apart from others in the area and indeed the world. First off, it is set between the confluence of two crystal clear rivers, and the apt naming of La Confluencia is indicative of the Jordans’ dedication to and connection with their immediate surrounds. Furthermore, the land is pristine because it has been preserved. Because it is in a deep valley, the farm has relatively no problems with natural predators, a larger concern for fellow farmers in the flatter parts of the area. All of the water used for irrigation and drinking here comes from an upland mountain stream that is fed by snow melt. But perhaps the most unique part of this operation is the exchange with the local population that occurs here. The Jordans purchased this land from a local family who still lives on an adjoining plot. This family helps the Jordans with some tasks and chores in exchange for simple services such as rides into town and deliveries of goods. La Confluencia also use locals as guides for their horseback rides for guests and the butchering of their livestock. In addition, the Jordans have engendered an exchange of methods. They learn from the locals about methods that might prove useful to them and in turn, they hope to provide an example to their neighbors of how sustainable agriculture could be a good option for their own farms.
The work completed at La Confluencia is not just for the benefit of those that are living there, though. Along with their partner Marcelo Queipo, Mark and Ellie formed the Land Ethic Action Foundation, whose mission is to “…focus on providing technical support for self-sufficiency and sustainable development in general.” They achieve this by hosting workshops at La Confluencia on biointensive farming, sustainable construction and the fundamentals of hydroelectricity. It is a forum for outreach and education to the southern cone and beyond, as many participants are the visitors to the lodge itself.
The Jordans enjoy the benefits of relatively good soil quality, but they are constantly working on improving it. Many of the methods are commonplace, but they are nonetheless effective. Primarily, they employ the biointensive method which has been proven over time to promote healthier soil ecosystems. It is defined by the use of double-digging, a type of low impact tillage that uses only manual labor instead of heavy machinery that can compact the soil. Biointensive beds are planted on an alternating pattern instead of simple linear rows. This method precludes the need for mulch, as the plants´ leaves cover nearly all the arable surface and so shade out weeds.
The beds and fields at La Confluencia are amended with compost made on-site with a layered mixture of organic waste materials, animal manure and straw gleaned from their cereal harvests. Crops and animals are rotated in like so as to spread manure and prevent over-sapping (or overloading) of soil nutrients in any one area. In the winters, beds not in use are planted in cover crops such as rye and broad beans. The resulting soil is a rich dark loam that has no need for chemical amendments.
Ellie and Mark have gone to great lengths to keep their footprint on their land and the earth in general very small out of both respect for the land itself as well as a desire to become self-sustaining. To begin with, they used natural clearings and flat areas for their gardens and pastures, so as not to have to clear great swaths of land from the outset. The majority of the wood that they do harvest from their land is windblown and deadfall. They use this wood to heat the lodge with a Finnish-style wood burning stove that also pre-heats the water that will ultimately be used for bathing, further reducing their energy demand and costs. The water, which as mentioned before, is taken from a nearby mountain stream, is run through a small turbine that provides all the electricity that they use. In the same spirit of homemade energy, La Confluencia will soon bring their new methane digester on-line. This machine will use organic material and human waste to create the natural gas that they use in their kitchens. The lodge itself was built with many different sustainable methods, the most significant of which is the use of materials harvested from on the property. The ground floor of the lodge was built with the straw bale technique, which provides excellent insulation throughout the whole year.
But not all of the Jordans’ efforts to blend with the local ecosystem are as advanced as those. They harvest a native variety of bamboo for use in staking plants and building hoop-houses. Many indigenous herbs grow naturally throughout the property, and those are left to propagate on their own and are harvested when they are needed. The hedgerows surrounding the lodge were all transplanted from elsewhere on the property and they include in their number a type of wild olive called the eliagnus, which is a favorite of local species of birds and other wildlife. Already La Confluencia uses oxen and ground driven implements for many tasks around the farm to reduce their need for diesel power, and that practice is one they hope to augment in the future. While walking around this property the human influence is certainly apparent, but what is even more apparent is how well it works with the local environs. Every plant growing here is doing so to its full potential, wild and cultivated alike.
Practical successes are not hard to come by at La Confluencia, though that does not mean that they were not hard-earned. For example, it was not without a frustrating period of trial and error that Ellie arrived at the idea of keeping her breeding stock of sheep for their whole lives rather than breeding them a couple of times and then selling them off, as many of the locals do. This way, she is guaranteed of knowing the temperaments of her animals and which ewes make the best dams. She also claims that it has helped control disease. Animal and human powered harvests are highly preferred here, as they consume less petroleum energy while at the same time creating a greater sense of community with the animals and people for all those that participate, especially the volunteers. For some years, they have been participants in the international organization, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. For those of you who don’t know, the basic premise of WWOOF is that a person pays a small administrative fee and receives a catalog of participating farms in the country of her choice. She then contacts a farm that she is interested in and agrees to a time frame with the farmers in which she can volunteer her time on the farm in exchange for room and board. Ellie says that this has been a boon for them, as the volunteers that they receive are not only hard working but are also invested in the ideals that La Confluencia espouses.
Ellie told me with little hesitation that their greatest success has been the use of the biointensive method. It has aided them greatly in their efforts to improve the soil here and led to healthier, higher-yielding plants. The Jordans save as much seed as they can, and this has reduced costs as well as the need for more shipping from the US. Another, more antiquated practice used here is cultivation and feeding of mangle-wurzels to the cows while they are being wintered in the barn. It is a large root crop that is related to the beet. Both the foliage and the root itself can be fed to the livestock, and is often relished by animals for its moisture in the midst of months of a dry hay diet.
La Confluencia, like any farm, faces challenges on a daily basis. But the challenges here are perhaps distinguished most by the setting. First of all, because they are in Argentina, the Jordans have a hard time finding equipment and materials that are high quality and so end up having to transport things such as irrigation lines from the US. Furthermore, the terrain comprising La Confluencia, while stunningly beautiful, is limiting in that there is little open or flat pasture land to be had. Due to this, the Jordans grow their hay and cereals on another detached property, and yet they still have to purchase hay from other local farmers to get through the winter. Since all the water here comes from an upland stream that is mainly fed by snowmelt, towards the end of the summer the facility runs dangerously low on water. There is no possibility of supplement from municipal water either because of the steep terrain and remoteness. To combat this problem, the Jordans have installed a large reserve tank for use in the event they do run out of water. On the whole, however, the successes here far outnumber the challenges and risks, a true sign of a well managed farm.
Self-sustenance is the main driving idea behind La Confluencia, and as such, this motive defines the future goals of the Jordans. They see many faults within the global economic and agricultural systems and harbor little desire to be reliant on them for their well-being. In addition, due to the volatile nature of the Argentine economy, they must plan for the future as possible. Indeed, while I was conducting this interview, Ellie and the WWOOFers were busy making about 5 years worth of plum jam, as the price of sugar in Argentina has doubled in price in the last year and the year before that it was simply not available. Economic concerns loom large in the minds of this couple, and rightly so. In these times of high unemployment and uncertain futures, there are fewer people looking to go on vacations to lodges in the southern cone of South America. Therefore, the Jordans have weighed various ideas of what the future might hold for La Confluencia. One option we discussed was a sort of long term work exchange, similar to WWOOF, but for greater periods of time and using the lodge as housing. But the goals of Ellie and Mark are not all so foreboding. They, like all growers, have practical and short term goals as well. They want to improve the quality of the soil and complete the rabbit proofing of the fence in the detached hay field. They are hoping that the methane digester will be functional later this year. They are also working towards making a more comprehensive plan for their animal rotations and using their draft animals as much as possible.
Though I was only at La Confluencia for a brief visit, it was clear to me that there were many aspects of the operation that were exemplary of sustainability. While there may not have been to many practices that were unheard of to those that are privy to such things, that is not the point. The idea is to create a system that functions because all its parts are well thought out. One that is not reliant on the outside world for input; that is a model from which other people can find a part or the whole of what they need make their own farms work just as well as La Confluencia.
Essay by Dan Hughes