March 13, 2013 GMT
Finca Fun – San Rafael

Our first day on the farm is a reasonably quiet one, it is Sunday and we help John with a few odd jobs before Annette arrives home later in the afternoon, a late night of catch ups, drinks and tall stories is the order of the day.

The following day we head down the farm for a morning of tumble-weed weeding, the weather is oppressively hot and sticky, so by lunch time it is time for a siesta and a swim. In the late afternoon we return to the farm for a bit more work. This is the pattern of events for the next week. Skill helps out on the farm, driving the tractor, whipper snipping (strimming if you are British) and becomes the self-appointed pool man. I do what I can on the farm and help Annette in the house and with meals. It is a reasonably busy time as the plum harvest is approaching. However there is always time for an evening asado and evening drinks and we three (Skill, Annette and I) even learn to make bread in the wood-burning adobe oven outside.

Time for an asado – Skill and Annette

John and Annette – evening drinks

For the first week there are huge storms in the area nearly every night. Hail storms in summer are a big problem for the San Rafael Mendoza area, John and Annette tell us that most farmers expect to be completely wiped out by hail once every four years. This area is such a food/wine bowl that the Argentinian government and the biggest Bodegas (wineries) can't afford to loose crops, so fund hail planes. They send up planes that release silver iodide into the storm, which forms particles that the moisture attaches to, so rain falls quickly and doesn't form hail. Skill says this science is not proven but John (as in John Green not Skill) said he believed it worked as he had seen too many hail storms turn to rain for it to be coincidence. The farmers also have what are essentially rocket launchers on their farms that they fire off during the storms based on the same principals. While we were there, the planes went up nearly every second night. Being a farmer's daughter I would be a bundle of nerves on these stormy evenings, I know what it is like to lose your livelihood in one storm. John and Annette were quite philosophical about it, “What can we do about it, have another drink Lan.” Fortunately only one storm hit the farm while we were there and no hail.

Storms build up nearly every night - view over the plum drying racks

Don't worry, have another drink Lan

Although the finca (farm) is a small one by Australian standards it is very labour intensive and John and Annette (and fellow motorcycle travellers) have worked tirelessly to turn it from a run down farm to a productive going concern, especially when a couple of the newly planted orchards of plum trees are fully producing in a couple of years. The 15 hectare farm produces mainly plums, with a smaller amount of grapes and walnuts, but there is a myriad of other fruit trees on the farm. One of the biggest jobs that happens every week is the watering of the farm. This part of Argentina is essentially a desert with less than 10 inches of rain a year, that is why agriculture relies so heavily on the labyrinth of irrigation channels, with water from the Andes.

Every six days the farm has an allocated 24 hours of watering, where water is diverted from outside canals onto the farm by a series of gates and channels. It requires constant monitoring, even during the night as the smallest channels beside the orchard trees and vines become clogged with weeds and soil restricting flows in some areas and increasing it in others when it needs to be as even as possible. This requires the manual use of a large hoe to open up or restrict each channel for the entire 24 hour allocated water day. The other problems associated with this watering system, is it is very open to theft which happens on a regular basis. That is people up-stream pilfering water when it is not their turn by opening the water gates onto their fincas.

Part of the channel watering system

In the following week, the four of us pile into the old ute (pick up) and head into town for a days shopping, off to the farmers market (for bulk fruit & veg), the wholesale supermarket, normal supermarket, the carniceria (butcher), the fish market, two gasoline stations (because John needed diesel for the tractor and there is a 20 L limit per purchase for drums) and finally the wine shop. All of this has to be done between 8.30 am and 12.30 pm before everything closes for siesta, it makes for a manic day in town because nothing happens fast in Argentina.

On another day Annette and I have a girl's day in down town San Rafael, we catch the local bus into town and have a day out, I buy some replacement shoes and Annette hunts down a trophy for the golf day she has organised.

The following day we join the golfers (after their golf game) at the San Rafael golf club for lunch, it is quite a posh place and we enjoy the afternoon sitting and chatting with John and Annette's friends, mostly expats and some Argentinian.

It is in this second week that we are joined by Mattheiu, a young French Canadian motorcylist who is nearing the end of his journey. He stays for the week and helps out while trying to organise the sale of his bike. John and Annette's friend Tom (who runs a rice farm in Peru) also pays a visit during this week.

Mattheiu and his bike.

The boys seem to get an enormous amount of work done in the week, as does Annette.


The boys (Skill, John and Tom) putting out the plum drying trays

I guess no farm would be complete without animals and John and Annette have a myriad of them, 5 eccentric dogs, three of them rescued from the streets – Rita, Posh, Mo, Blackie and Rosie. Three ducks including One Wing who was egg sitting, 2 geese George and Mildred who frequented the pool area everyday much to Skill's chagrin as he was now the self appointed pool man.

George and Mildred, the pool geese

Then late one afternoon, John and Annette's Argentinian neighbours Jose and Gladys turn up on their moped carrying a suspicious looking package. Inside was a tiny white kitten, a much needed new rat-catcher for the household. She was a dear little soul and seemed to attach herself to Skill immediately. John and Annette both admitted to not really being cat lovers, but a rat catcher was definitely needed with all the dried plums and walnuts that get stored near the house.

The new kitten “Kitty” asleep in the grapevine

In the next week, work continues on the farm as the plum harvest gets closer, the drying racks are finished off, and there is more whipper snippering, weeding and slashing done. We also manage to get jams and soups made from the huge amount of fruit and vegetables that the farm produces, Annette has a stockpile of pickles, jams and conserves she keeps to see them through the year.

On Friday John and Skill head into town to do more shopping, we girls stay put at the farm. The boys return frazzled but with a fair amount of success. Poor John has had to deposit a cheque at the bank, they arrive at 8.00am and take a number, John queues and is finally served at around midday, this is just to deposit a cheque, nothing complicated! This is just a way of life in Argentina, you queue for everything, post office, bank, supermarket, and I can't imagine what it must be like at the social security offices?????????

On Saturday evening we head off to a friend's birthday party and enjoy a lovely night with John and Annette's friends. It is a late finish and we continue to chat over a few drinks when we get home, bed at around 3.00 am. Next morning we wake at around 10.00 am and find that John and Annette are already down the farm picking plums, we didn't even hear the old tractor start in the barn next to our bedroom – ooops.

During our last week, we all take a day off work and go for a ride up the beautiful Valle Grande. It is a great days ride and we enjoy a picnic lunch by the river before returning home in the late afternoon. The pictures tell the story.

Annette - intrepid biker gal

Dam - Valle Grande

John and Lan chilling. Graffiti or street art?

The mob squad - assassins for hire???

The girls - Lan and Annette

Valle Grande panorama.jpg
Panorama Valle Grande

Beautiful rock formations and colours

Stopped for a chat

A bus approaches

Valle Grande lunch panorama 2.jpg
Our lunch stop

It is also during our last week that the evening storms return. It is a busy week as the plums are starting to fall off the trees so the four of us begin to pick these 'first fall' plums in amongst other assorted jobs that still need to be done. Between us we pick 2 tonnes of plums (Annette is the “gun” picker, I have no hope of keeping up with her) and get them onto the dying racks where they are covered with plastic, in a week or so they will be prunes. It is a fairly time consuming business, all the trees need to be individually shaken and the plums then picked up “off the floor” by hand. Apparently the professional pickers lay down netting, shake the trees and collect the plums by bringing the netting together and tipping the plums into the boxes. As it was only the beginning of the harvest only a small percent of the plums are ripe and falling, so it was not worth our while to use the netting yet. A team of professional pickers still need to be found as the harvest proper will begin in the following week. John estimates there will be 30 to 40 tonnes of plums to be picked.

Loading the plums onto the drying racks

The plums are covered with plastic to help with the drying process

On our second last night at the farm we are invited to Juanan's Bodega/Finca up the road for a birthday dinner. Jose and Gladys are Juanan's managers. We arrive at 9.30 pm, there are huge storms all around and it makes for a spectacular light show. We have dinner in their newly built winery barn, we tuck into Gladys' home made empanadas (the best we have had), a young pig cooked in the adobe oven and salads and bread. We also get to sample Juanan's wines (made by Jose) and pink champagne. It is only their second year of production, but the wines are really quite nice. It is a “pinch me, I can't believe I'm here” evening. We arrive home at 2.00am and poor John has to continue with the watering through the night as it is their water day. Skill and I have another huge sleep in while poor old John and Annette are sweltering in the heat picking plums, I guess we just don't have their stamina.

We finally do make a decision to leave on the following Saturday morning, the 2nd March, also the 7th anniversary of John and Annette owning the farm. We think we will head for Tupungato, but really aren't too sure. We will see where the road takes us.

We cannot thank John and Annette enough for their hospitality. They are a great hard working couple who have shared their lives and farm with countless motorcyclists from all over the world. They believe it is their way of indirectly paying back the people who helped them on their three year “around the world” motorcycling odyssey.

We came for a week and stayed for a month, we came as strangers and left as friends, do I need to say more.

Note: If any motorcycle travellers wish to experience life on a farm in Argentina and are interested in visiting and working on John & Annette's finca near San Rafael, refer to Annette's post on Horizons Unlimited HUBB forum for all the details. (

Posted by John Skillington at March 13, 2013 07:07 PM GMT

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