SALTA, Argentina – U.S. markets were closed yesterday for Labor Day.
So, today we’ll give you our final report on our visit to the ranch.
It was 14°F (-10°C) yesterday morning. The water pipes had burst. A light snow fell.
We said goodbye to Marta, our cook, Gustavo, the ranch foreman, Gabriella, his wife, and the ranch hands, Pablo, Natalio, José, and Samuel.
Then we drove through the main gate and out across the dry riverbed.
After a few minutes, we noticed an attractive young woman, stoutly bundled up against the cold, walking along with two unsaddled horses behind her.
We stopped to say hello and discovered that it was Nicanora, Marta’s sister. She smiled, as she always does, and greeted us with a kiss on the cheek.
“What are you doing?” we asked.
“I’m bringing the horses so Marta and I can ride back to papa’s place.”
In the pickup, we had the heat turned up full blast. Our 22-year-old son, Edward, accompanied us on the trip.
“Imagine riding a horse for five hours in this glacial cold to reach an unheated house,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I almost froze just getting out to open the gate.”
But Nicanora doesn’t seem to notice; she wasn’t even wearing gloves.
For her, it was routine… and she went about it with grace and charm.
Continuing on our way, up to the pass at the Cuesta del Obispo, we found a winter wonderland. You can see it in these photos we took.
The road to Salta
We would have felt better about leaving if we had left the ranch in good order.
But it was not.
As the week developed, so did our awareness of the problems we faced… and what little we could do to solve them.
“Some problems don’t have solutions,” our old ranch foreman Jorge had told us.
The ranch is caught between two problems – one economic, the other political. Neither seems to have a solution.
On the one side is the “rock”: the ranch itself… so high, so dry, and so difficult to work that it can’t pay for itself.
Each year, we take a loss, telling ourselves that the extra investment will bring us closer to breakeven. And each year, we get further from it.
The biggest cost is the workers’ salaries. They earn little compared with Americans. But they are also much less productive.
As we left, for example, the crew was on its way to the vineyard to prune the grapevines. Pedro, one of our gauchos, explained how it worked…
“I get up at 4 a.m. I have to make a fire on the foguero [a raised hearth] to cook my breakfast. I get dressed and pack a lunch. It is still dark when I start walking to the sala [the ranch headquarters and our home here; he walks because there is no road from his house].
“It takes me an hour and a half of walking to get there. Then we get our tools together and fill up the truck so we’re ready to head over to the vineyard at about 8 a.m. It takes about 45 minutes to drive there… and another 15 minutes to get ourselves sorted out. We start work at 9 a.m., trying to keep our fingers from stiffening up in the cold so we can still do the pruning.”
Pedro was not complaining. He was just illustrating what life at the ranch was like… and demonstrating why it is so hard to make any money there. The simplest task – changing a tire, checking the grapes, vaccinating the cattle – is complicated by distance and the harsh weather.
“You are always going to lose money on the ranch,” explained our lawyer in a final meeting before we headed off to Buenos Aires.
“But you don’t have to lose so much. Just fire some of the workers.”
This brings us to the other of our two big problems: the “hard place” of politics.
Even with all the advantages of capital, machinery, engineers, Google, the various experts advising us – not to mention our abundant experience in providing unwanted economic commentary – we can’t come close to breakeven on this ranch.
But that doesn’t stop the originarios – the local indigenous people who are claiming title to our land – from wanting to take it from us.
What benefit they will get from it has yet to be explained. But our lawyer shed more light on the situation:
“It’s politics. It’s not economics. You can’t make the ranch profitable. Nobody can. And least of all, the originarios.
“They have no money. They have no expertise. Many of them can’t even read. They have no machines. They don’t know how to drive. All they could possibly do would be to live there in poverty, just as they do now.
“If you leave, it will be a loss for everyone. But the ringleaders don’t care. They will score a victory. They hope to get more money from the government for their new ‘Diaguita Community’ [the name the originario agitators have given themselves]. They don’t care what happens to the people there. They don’t even live there.
“But time is on your side. These movements are losing ground everywhere in South America. People are beginning to realize how disastrous they are. Land prices collapse. Nobody wants to invest. People with skills and capital leave. It’s a nightmare.
“Probably the biggest nightmare is Venezuela. Do you know it has collected about $1 trillion in oil revenues over the last 10 years? But despite all that money, the people have no food, no medicine, no nothing. And that guy who runs it, Maduro, is a total fruitcake. He says the former president, Hugo Chávez, who’s been dead for three years, speaks to him through a bird.
“Up at your ranch, you have no oil. No rich farmland. No water. No sugarcane. No factories. You don’t have anything. If these guys could make a mess of one of the richest countries in the world, imagine what they’re going to do to your ranch.”
Further Reading: Bill also recorded a great time-lapse video of his wintry drive to Salta… just for his Diary readers. Check it out below.
BY CHRIS LOWE, EDITOR AT LARGE
Emerging markets have been the place to be in 2016.
Today’s chart tracks three exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to show you the stark contrast.
The first is the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO), which tracks emerging markets stocks.
The second is the Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF (VEA), which tracks stocks in developed markets outside the U.S.
And the third is the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), which tracks U.S. stocks.
As you can see, the emerging market stocks have trounced the competition. They are up 17% versus 4% for stocks in foreign developed markets… and 10% for U.S. stocks.
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Today, more reader feedback on the ongoing drama on the ranch in response to Bill’s latest update on the “Originario War.”
Wow! What an article. I hope you see my reply. You are a genius with words and painting a picture. This was a masterpiece.
I have travelled widely with my backpack from Mt. Everest to the Pyramids of Egypt. So, I understand well what you wrote about the ranch and the "tribal" community.
For decades I wanted to do my version of what you’re doing on my "peanut” scale. The high Andes was my choice of survival for the forthcoming chaos… which we both know shall be worldwide.
– William H.
As one who spends more time on history than on current chaos, I often find historic parallels to Bill’s originarios experience.
In my neck of the woods the new regional park was given 2,300 acres by the departing U.S. Navy, who stole the land fair and square from 19th and 20th century farmers… who stole it fair and square from the Mexican land grantees… who stole it fair and square from the Spanish missions… who stole it fair and square from the Indians, who had been there several thousand years.
Of course, they likely stole it from their predecessors who had been in the valley for a previous 8,000 years. I’m always intrigued by power and laws.
– Dean M.
You chose and paid for your ranch because you selected it out and wanted it. You’ve got a great wealth and do not need any money – or lack thereof – associated with the property. It is your “hobby,” like Queen Elizabeth’s stamp collection.
From that point of view… and as a man experienced in personal freedoms… you have every right to “fight to the last man standing” for what is yours. Acquiesce and everyone loses, as the originarios gain something for nothing… and you know how that story ends.
You are a free man. You have worked to enjoy your pleasures and have succeeded. Don’t let circumstances take it away from you. Enjoy it with its pluses and minuses.
– Brad H.
Try allowing the originarios to “use” (don’t give them ownership title) some of the land for free for now… or for 50… or 100 years. But don’t give them any farm buildings.
The Diaguita people did not build your farm buildings, did they? So the originarios cannot claim them. And since the land cannot – at least not easily – be made profitable, they will soon enough notice and give up.
– Johan L.
Your son [Edward, 22] is a geologist. You have mountains to explore, Well, I am sure you already did explore those mountains for minerals, because for animals it is not really any good – with its lack of rain, lack of good pasture, and lack of good agricultural land.
– Omar L.
So why did you buy a place in Gualfin? From the looks of the pictures, you could have bought the same place in the middle of nowhere NM, CO, AZ, or NV. You would have been able to drive to the local Conoco for peanuts and beer in about 30 minutes…. originarios not included!
– Doug S.
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