Home > Museum

 
Sheep Farming

ESTANCIA MONTE LEÓN

 
SHEEP FARMING

Monte León was a sheep ranch from 1905 to 2001. In the 1880s, sheep farming became southern Patagonia´s leading industry. Most of Monte León's present day facilities were built around 1914. Their wonderfully functional design has allowed them to stay in working condition for almost a century with little change. The massive naval-looking one-piston, fuel-oil run engine in the shearing shed is a fine example of the days’ engineering prowess. Frame houses were shipped from England, and to this day stand in perfect condition. Monte León is a fine example of the "globalization" of the sheep farming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Supplies for sheep farming, including wire fencing, pre-fab sheds, veterinary supplies, shearing machinery, vehicles, stoves, were shipped from Great Britain and sold by, among others, Braun & Blanchard, which opened a branch in Santa Cruz in the early nineteen-hundreds. Farmers, sheep and dogs usually came from the Falklands. Management, frequently drawn fron the military, was also imported.

As with most other sheep farming operations in Patagonia, installations closely followed the models layed out earlier in Great Britain and Australia, and their aim was purely industrial.

This is a major difference with the traditional Argentine cattle-farms, or "estancias", were the owners usually were locals who either lived or spent lengthy periods there.

ESTANCIA MONTE LEÓN

By 1895, Curtze & Wahlen, the Punta Arenas agents of the German inter-oceanic freight line Kosmos, were registered as owners of a fraction of what was starting to be called Monte León. 15,000 sheep belonging to them thrived there, and wild cattle, the survivors of an ill-fated colonization attempt of 1872 reputedly haunt the coast’s "cañadones" (ravines). The lands were sold to Walter Curtze and Augusto Wahlen by the Argentine Governement, or according to the original title deeds, by "his Excellency, the President of the Republic, Lieutenant-General Don Julio A. Roca".

Walter Curtze, a German living in Punta Arenas since 1885, embodied many of the characteristics which contributed to the making of the new Patagonia which was rising at the time: European stock, interoceanic sailing, a close relationship to finance and trade. Curtze business activities were not confined to sheep ranching and sea freight (besides working for Kosmos he eventually ran a line of his own). He was one of the founders of the Punta Arenas Bank, as well as one of the partners in the city’s first power company.

As for Augusto Wahlen, he and his siblings had arrived to Punta Arenas in 1874, aboard the same ship which carried don Elías Braun, his wife Sara Hamburger and their four elder children: Sara, Moritz (who was to become the owner of Monte León, as well as one of the leading businessmen of the era) Oscar and Ana.

In 1903, Curtze and Whalen heirs sold the rights on the lands of Monte León to the Valparaíso (Chile) based German merchants Vorverck y Cia., whose chairman was Edgar Vorverck, which ran the farm under the name of Sociedad Estancias Santa Cruz. Major shareholders in the SESC were Moritz (or Mauricio) Braun and the London-based English businessman Sir Peter Hannay Mc Clelland, through Duncan Fox & Co. Although already a powerful businessman in his own right, Moritz Braun’s start in large-scale farming had a key ally in Mc Clelland, who contributed the initial capital for the colonization of the 2,500,000 acres of fiscal land in Chilean Tierra del Fuego which Moritz’s sister, Sara, inherited from her husband, Portuguese entrepreneur José Nogueira in 1893.

In 1912, the Southern Patagonian Sheep Farming Co. Ltd., a public company, was formed in London by a group of businessmen which once again includes Moritz and Duncan Fox & Co. as major shareholders. SPSFCo. statutes describe the company’s aims as, "acquiring land suited to sheep farming both in the Argentine Republic and in the Chilean Republic (...) Making all and any land purchased by said company fit for production (...) by constructing, mantaining and equipping all sorts of buildings, stores, and habitations, as well as cultivating, planting, draining and otherwise developing the aforesaid lands." In 1913, all SESC property, including, of course, land and stock was acquired by the newly SPSFCo. Ltd. A year later SPSFCo. Ltd. acquired an adjoining lot, rounding out the present day Monte León’s 63,000.

Most of Monte León present day facilities were built at that date, through SPSFCo. Ltd making good of the purposes stated in it’s statutes. Their wonderfully functional design has allowed them to stay in working condition for almost a century with little change. The massive naval-looking one-piston, fuel-oil run engine in the shearing shed is a fine example of the days’ engineering prowess. This was a prime-age for shipbuilding, with British naval power at its heyday and advances in this field poured over to many other industries. Frame houses were shipped from England, and to this day stand in perfect condition. Monte León is a fine example of the "globalization" of the sheep farming in the late nineteen and early twentieth century.

As with most other sheep farming operations in Patagonia, installations closely followed the models layed out earlier in Great Britain and Australia, and their aim was purely industrial. Management, frequently drawn fron the military, was also imported. This is a major difference with the traditional Argentine cattle-farms, or "estancias", were the owners usually were locals who either lived or spent lengthy periods there.

While Duncan Fox & Co. acted as London agents for SPSF Co. Ltd., Braun y Blanchard, Moritz’s trading firm in Punta Arenas did likewise in Chile and Argentina. Argentine researcher Eduardo José Miguez, includes the following information in his "Las Tierras de los Ingleses en la Argentina, 1870-1914: "By 1914, Southern Patagonian Sheep Farming Co. owned 121,500 hectares and leased 133,500 more. Lands were in Santa Cruz and Chile. It’s principal amounted to £141,003, and it had also placed debentures on the market at an anual rate of 6%, as well as mortgage guarantee at £71,000. Besides paying up due interests to the debentures, the company distributed earnings of 6% since its creation in 1912 till World War 1 broke out. Those were subsequently raised due to wools mounting price.

It is clear from these figures that wool was a booming commodity at the time, and that Hannay McClelland had efficiently placed SPSF Co. Ltd. stock on the London market.

When SESC shareholders met at Valparaíso to decide on the turning over of their company to SPSF Co. Ltd., the company’s president, one Mr. Arturo Goldfinch, who represented shareholders Moritz Braun and his sister Sara as well as Duncan Fox and Co. put forth his points of view on the operation: "The President has informed the board about the constitution of Southern Patagonian Sheep Farming Co.Ltd. and to inform of the said companies’ negotiations to acquire estancias "La Carlota" and "Los Manantiales" which will give a good basis to start operating, as they count with 217,000 hectares and 90,000 sheep. The President further stated he had given the proposal detailed study, and found it very convenient, thus daring to recommend the board approbation of the purchase". As already seen, his suggestion was taken, and SPSF Co. Ltd. return was certainly worth it.

During the years in which what might be termed "Punta Arenas capitalism" expanded, operation through limited companies was a popular form of adding as much volume as possible to farming operations carried on lands both leased and straight-out purchased. The limited company structure expanded to new areas, and even the German School Club at Punta Arenas functioned as such.

The period between Braun’s early association to SPSF Co. Ltd. and the take over of that firm by Braun himself is one of deep changes in the world’s economic outlook. While World War I gave rise to record wool prices, Patagonian producers did not fully benefit from it, as the opening of the Panama Channel in 1916 considerably slowed the Magellan Channel area brisk activity. Nevertheless, it must be assumed local bussinessmen were not caught off their guard, as the opening of the Panama Channel had been announced for years.

In 1920, Southern Patagonian Sheep Farming Co., which had been gone into liquidation since 1919, was sold to Sociedad Anónima La Ganadera Argentina Limitada, the family firm owned by Moritz Braun and his father in law José Menéndez. The sale include all assets belonging to the Monte León farm, among them 40,535 sheep, 375 horses, 8 cows and a bull, as well as facilities, equipments, utensils, gear, machinery, vehicles, and telephone lines. The total price amounts to 422,899 pesos, 364,815 of which are payed for the sheep, valued at 9 pesos a head.

The farm’s 87,143 hectares, were sold at 871,430 pesos. Interestingly, the price per hectare (10 pesos) was barely higher than the one of a sheep. The whole operation was paid by with shares of the acquiring company. The other two farms belonging to SPSF Co. Ltd. at the time were also purchased: "La Carlota", near Río Gallegos and including land both in Chile and Argentina, and "Los Manantiales", near San Julián.

Sheep farming in Patagonia has often been condemned by Argentine Nationalists on the grounds of its occupation of huge stretches of national territory by English, or in Braun’s case, Chilean, subjects. While most of these farms were, and are, run according to British standards, and many were owned and managed by Britons, their development effectively colonized regions of Argentina which would otherwise have remained unoccupied, and never clashed with the authorities on matters of sovereignity. Besides, in the enormous but unfertile spreads of Patagonia’s steppe and seaboard, afflicted by a chronical shortage of work force, only extensive production systems had a chance of success. This circumstance has helped preserve the environment in ample areas of Patagonia, scarcely modified by the relatively small livestock population. Nevertheless, the "mallines" or Andean valleys where fertile soil has gradually piled up during millenia of sedimentation has suffered severe damage due to sheep farming.

Sheep farming in Patagonia was once a thriving bussiness, but has undergone a steady decline, as the ever dwindling number of farms (less than 2,000 out of 3,500 registered "estancias" are now active) shows. Nevertheless, even in its heyday, and given the theoretically ideal business milieu of Punta Arenas, farming in Patagonia always was a prime example of risk capitalism, as the harsh climate and endless distances demanded incredible efforts from the producers. Government land policies have historically been erratic at best, and entrepreneurs not always counted with due legal security for their investment. A major source of trouble with the zoning of the territory of Santa Cruz was that it was a purely geometric business, performed on maps and paying small or no attention to key elements like water and the relative height of lands. High lands, while productive in summer are absolutely barren in winter.

In the late 1940, Juan Perón’s governement started a much needed labour reform which put many "estancieros" in jeopardy. This, however, was not don Mauricio’s case. By then, the conditions of workers at the "La Anónima", owned farms were really exceptional, and no cause for measures against the firm or the family which owned it was found. Even thus, under the latent threat of expropriation and a steady campaign in the official press against "Chilean latifundists", Mauricio Braun met Perón for a man-to-man agreement in 1951. What they talked has never been disclosed, but "La Anónima" survived unscathed the Peronist reforms, which were to prove fatal to many other businesses.

Even so, Nationalist and Peronist myth about British and Chilean latifundia dies hard, and as late as 1985, a group of Peronist Congressmen, including the prominent Carlos Ruckauf, presented a project for expropriation of several farms in Patagonia, including Monte León. The project was declaredly based on the "impossibility of tolerating British presence in our mainland after our soldiers generously shed their blood in Malvinas". Of course, nothing came of it, as Monte León has not been British-owned since 1920.

 

MONTE LEON PATAGONIA