FEATURE - Argentine farmers aim to reap organic crop rewards
Author: Athena Jones
Nanni's family has been making wine near the Andean town of Cafayate in northwestern Argentina since 1900, but it was not until a few years ago that he decided to take advantage of the climate and soil of Calchaquies valley to grow grapes chemical-free.
"We don't need to use any type of chemicals because of the characteristics of the area where we grow our grapes," said Nanni. "We are in a valley 1,650 meters above sea level and in this area, the rain is not excessive and there's a good wind that dries the grapes, so we don't need fungicides."
Organic production is gaining ground in recession-hit Argentina as a growing number of producers are willing to spend more to create products that can command premium prices.
The number of organic farmers in Argentina has sky-rocketed from about 220 in 1995 to 1,500 this year and the amount of land devoted to organic farming has jumped to about 3 million hectares from 5,000 hectares in 1993.
But with a taste for expensive organic products not yet well-developed at home where consumer demand has collapsed amid a three-year economic slump, Nanni and others like him, are aiming to tap into the expanding global market.
"We are working on an export plan because there is not much local interest in organic products," he said. "Abroad, they appreciate wine that doesn't have all of the things conventional wine has, like insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals that are added in the wine-cellar."
The organic food industry is estimated at about $20 billion worldwide and the popularity of the products has grown as food scares like 'mad cow' led to worries over food safety.
Many consumers are also choosing more natural foods for fear of the long-term health effects of antibiotics, hormones, chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"The people have this psychosis," said Laura de Tami, an organic egg producer and president of the Argentine Chamber of Certified Organic Producers (Capoc). "More and more, the public wants their environment to be healthier."
CHICKENS ROAM FREE
Argentine beef is famed for its natural grass-fed quality, but the country has also earned the controversial distinction of being second only to the United States in the use of genetically modified seeds, such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans.
But local farmers hope Argentina can make a name for itself as a primary producer of quality organic foods.
Argentina is now the No. 1 producer of organic foods in the Americas, according to Christian Martinez, an international relations official for Buenos Aires province, which accounts for about half of the nation's organic production.
"We started producing because we were looking for ways to increase profits," said Maximo Magadan, who works with a group of farmers that export organic honey and grains to Europe.
Argentina, with its vast, fertile territory, is in a privileged position to develop organic agriculture because of its diverse climates and production systems that have traditionally used small quantities of agrochemicals.
Organic production is more expensive than conventional farming because of lower productivity and certification and labor costs. The attraction of organic foods is that producers can pass their higher costs on to the consumer.
De Tami produces organic eggs at a farm where her 10,000 chickens roam free. Free-range chickens produce 60 to 65 eggs every 100 days, while chickens raised in coops produce about 93 eggs in the same period.
"To produce organically, you have to buy organic products that are more expensive. The price increase can be 40 to 60 percent, depending on the season and the product."
De Tami's eggs, which are sold at 70 stores throughout the country under the Ecovo brand name, cost twice as much as conventional eggs.
Another plus is that prices for organic production are often established before the harvest by contract so farmers do not have to worry about the drasti