A drive in my car; a shuttle; two flights; another car ride; a ferry; and a bus ride later, I arrived in Montevideo, the capitol of Uruguay, on Thursday night. I was finally there for the pre-tour portion of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) 2013 Congress in Argentina after months of anticipation.
Participating in the pre-tour portion in Uruguay was a way for me to dip my toes in South American agriculture before the main event began in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday night. A small group of about 20 ag journalists and ag professionals from around the world gathered for this pre-tour experience in Uruguay. And it was a pretty unforgettable experience, to say the least.
But before I delve into telling the incredible stories of the Uruguayan farmers we met, I’d like to reflect on my first impressions of this small but thriving South American country. While I only spent two days there, the tour coordinators made sure I had meaningful experiences learning about Uruguay’s backbone – agriculture – and the people that are making it happen.
Uruguay was founded on the cattle industry, and the first person to give us a glimpse into Uruguay’s history in beef production was Tabare Aguerre, the country’s Minister of Agriculture and Fishing, which you could compare to the position of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Since Uruguay did not have many natural resources like gold, it was one of the later Latin-American countries to be colonized by Spain. In 1611, the Spaniards brought cattle to the area, and as Aguerre told us, “Now there is a huge difference. 400 years after that we have one cow per person in Uruguay.” The country’s population is 3.3 million.
What’s more impressive than the cow-to-person ratio is the technology and policies they’ve adopted to increase the efficiencies of the meat industry and ensure sanitation and quality. Every cow is tracked with an ear tag, which they call a “traceability tag,” and it contains detailed information about the cow. Producers are able to track each cow from the day it is born through processing and the meat’s final destination in the grocery store.
It’s fair to assume this high-tech tracking system was implemented as a result of the country’s Foot and Mouth Disease epidemic that started in 2001, but Uruguay has since overcome the disease and risen to be recognized globally for the quality of its meat production industry. The system’s extensiveness, and the way in which it ensures high quality for the consumer, was really impressive. I was not expecting to hear that such a sophisticated system was in place in this small country that I perceived to be a bit overshadowed by its Argentine neighbor.
After we heard from Aguerre and other Uruguayan leaders in agriculture, we ventured out to see this system, and other facets of agriculture, at work. And as Eduardo Blasina, agricultural economist and local radio host told us, 75% of the country’s exports are agriculture related, so there was a lot to see in just two short days.
Blasina served as one of our guides as we traveled through the countryside to see some exceptional examples of how Uruguay’s agriculture industry is working well. We stopped at the new and expanding Talar dairy farm, where the owner has a long-term vision to make the entire facility pollution-free through the use of solar panels, recycled water, fertilizer refinement and more.
A Belgian princess opened her doors to us at her Estancia Las Rosas (Farm of the Roses) farm, a couple hour drive from Montevideo, where she and her staff grow grain and raise high quality pure-bred cattle, sheep, horses and dairy cows.
Driving for a couple hours east of Montevideo brought us to Agroland Olive Route, a boutique olive oil production facility, where we drove through acres of olive groves to learn about the olive oil making process. And we of course sampled the end product, too.
Next stop: Buenos Aires. If the trip through Uruguay was any indication of what’s to come, I think we are all in for an incredible learning experience. Another 180 people will be joining our group from around the world as we get a glimpse into what Argentine agriculture looks like these next few days. The Uruguayan people are said to be more calm and quiet in comparison with the people of Buenos Aires, so I look forward to comparing and contrasting the cultures – and the agriculture industries – of each, or at least my impressions of them as an outsider looking in.
Stay tuned  for more from abroad.