BUENOS AIRES — AS another work day draws to an end at the cattle market of Chascom'us in Argentina's fertile Pampas, four gauchos sit around a campfire for their ritual rounds of afternoon mat'e sipping. ``Hard work today?'' someone asks.
``Aha,'' the men nod with a smile. Gauchos, who herd the cattle and care for the crops on Argentina's ranches or estancias, are men of few words.
``As hard as any other,'' finally says Cholo Miranda as he pours hot water from a little kettle into a white enameled jar to make mat'e, the bitter beverage which is as popular as coffee or tea in Argentina.
The market at Chascom'us, two hours' drive from Buenos Aires, handles about 120,000 head of cattle a year from neighboring estancias. It is just one of many markets scattered over the Pampas, the treeless plains that stretch across central Argentina, the heart of the nation's farm belt.
It was the Pampas' wheat and beef that made Argentina one of the richest countries in the world a century ago. The marble pillars and the crystal chandeliers at the 125-year-old Argentine Rural Society, on plush Florida Street in Buenos Aires, stand as testimony to this prosperous past.
Today, Argentina is different: a $63 billion foreign debt, relentless inflation, and a mammoth state deficit. Farming and agribusiness remain its major economic strengths, but Argentina is no longer wealthy. This sector accounts for 40 percent of the gross domestic product, about $70 billion, and for 75 percent of all exports. It is Argentina's buffer against what would otherwise be a much harsher economic climate.
In other countries, farming is subsidized by the state. In Argentina, the reverse is true: Farmers have subsidized less-efficient sectors of the economy for decades.
Through ``retentions,'' a duty on dollar-earning exports now levied at 20 to 30 percent, farmers hand over about $1.5 billion a year to the government. ``The duties might be the easiest way to obtain revenue,'' complains estancia owner Alfredo Bigatti, ``but they're dangerous because they discourage production.''
President Carlos Menem has promised a gradual reduction of the duties until their elimination in a year. But to fulfill its promise, his government must succeed in its attempts to improve the tax collection system and cut state spending.
Guillermo Alchurr'on, president of the Argentine Rural Society, claims grain production would jump from 37 million tons this year to 50 million tons if the duties were removed, bringing Argentina a further $4 billion in export income.
In spite of the taxes, farming is still profitable. Costs are half those in the United States, reflecting some of Argentina's advantages: a rich soil; a mild, snow-free climate; cheaper labor; and land prices five times lower than in the US.
The life of the gaucho has changed little over the years. For a quarter of a century, Eudoro Andrade has done the same jobs at La Encarnacion, a 2,470-acre estancia in Buenos Aires province. He rises to milk the cows at 5:30 a.m. and then cares for the other cattle.
``I spend the whole day with the cattle, just as I did 25 years ago,'' Mr. Andrade says. ```Except now I'm too old to tame horses.''
But if the gauchos' lifestyle is much as it was, the estancia has changed dramatically. ``The structure of the typical estancia is one for the history books,'' says Enrique Gobee, an agronomist and cofounder of farming consultants Cazenave & Asociados.
The huge estancias of old - 25,000 acres or more - are disappearing as they are divided among heirs. ``In a country where people have many children, generational division of the land has produced the greatest agricultural reform Argentina has ever known,'' Mr. Gobee says.
Today, 80 percent of farms in the Pampas are in the hands of small or mid-size farmers who own less than 2,500 acres. A 1988 census shows the average farm in Buenos Aires province is just 894 acres.
There are other changes, as well. Farmers are abandoning the old system of rotating crops and cattle, which helped to keep the soil fertile. They are selling off their cattle herds and going into more profitable, quick-return crops.
But conservationists warn this is badly damaging the soil. Field crops can earn farmers profits of 25 to 35 percent a year; cattle only 12 percent a year. Last year Argentina exported $4.5 billion of grain and only $800 million of beef.
As many farmers race for quantity, others argue quality might yet win out. Few fertilizers and almost no hormones or antibiotics are used on Argentina's farms. Argentina's cattle, leaner than US varieties because they are fed on grass not grain, could become popular in health-conscious markets in the industrialized world.
Argentina is primarily an agricultural economy, but that does not mean it is a rural society. In fact, more than 85 percent of its 33 million people live in cities. Finding young people to work on the estancias is getting hard.
Andrade's teenage helper just quit. ``The young these days prefer an odd job in the town to see the lights at night,'' he says.
There is a small reverse migration to the farms - but it is nearly all city-dwelling tourists out for a day or a weekend in the country. Most of the visitors are foreigners.
Echoing the European aristocrats who threw open the doors of their castles and mansions after World War II, Argentine ranchers have started allowing visitors onto their estancias - the last refuge of Argentine tradition.
Prices, including food and lodging, range from $80 to $320 a day - and you, too, can be a gaucho.