The greening of Chile: a tale of apples and grapes

Don Julian dropped quickly to his knees. Scooping up a handful of rich black loam, he let some of it run through his fingers - and then brought the rest to his nose.

Sniffing the soil, he smiled.

''Ah, this is good soil for apples. The best. You put in some seedlings here and you'll have a small but good crop in four years, and by the sixth or seventh year the crop will be the best in the valley.''

Julian Errazuriz Echenique has lived his 72-year life within 10 miles of this agricultural center, a scant 30 miles south of Santiago, the Chilean capital.

''Is there any better place?'' he asks. Without waiting for an answer, he enthuses: ''Look, we have some of the best soil in Chile right here. The climate is always refreshing. And there's almost always water.''

For six generations, since they came to Chile from Spain's Basque country, the Errazuriz family has been doing what they do best - growing fruit. If Don Julian, who is now patriarch of the family, has his way, future generations of Errazurizes will go on doing it.

He is obviously proud of his Basque heritage. But he is even prouder of the role of the Basques and other small farmers in this part of Chile.

Together with the Aconcagua valley northeast of Santiago, a number of sectors toward the Pacific Coast, and the Donihue region, the Paine and Buin region south of Santiago is responsible for Chile's abundant fruit production. Traditionally, these areas supplied the domestic market. But in the past decade Chile has developed a lively fruit export trade, part of its overall export drive.

Apples and grapes dominate this export market. Apple exports, destined mainly for Europe, soared 168 percent between 1977 and 1982. Grape exports, mainly to the United States, shot up 239 percent in the same period.

A study by the agronomy faculty of the Universidad Catolica de Chile shows that fruit exports now represent 60 percent of all agricultural and forestry products exported from Chile, netting the nation $247.5 million in 1982. Expectations for 1983 are even higher, perhaps approaching $275 million.

''There has been a veritable explosion of fruit production,'' says the university study.

Much of the explosion is due to the work of farmers like Don Julian, but it also represents a conscious decision on the part of Chile's military government to boost agricultural exports.

Chile's export agency has worked hard in the past several years to find markets for Chilean agriculture - not only to expand markets in Europe and the US, but also to find new buyers such as New Zealand, which itself is an agricultural land.

Here in Paine (pronounced Pie-nay), where Julian Errazuriz is better known simply as Don Julian (the Don is a title of endearment he acquired years ago), the farmers are pleased with the current stress on agriculture and agricultural exports by the government.

''It means we have the support rather than obstacles from Santiago,'' says Don Julian. ''Too many governments in the past have gotten in the way with their policies.''

Don Julian and many of his fellow farmers are conservative in their politics, but they are not particularly active in politics. ''Leave that to the boys in Santiago,'' he says. Moreover, he is not happy with military rule as such.

''I suppose it had to be. Things were unruly during Allende's time,'' he said , referring to Salvador Allende Gossens, a Socialist who was overthrown 10 years ago in a brutal military coup d'etat.

But Don Julian does not have much to say for 10 years of military rule. ''They should have turned things back to the civilians long ago,'' he said, ''after they got things straightened out in the first place and got us back on track.''

It is obvious, however, that Don Julian thinks things are back on track now. ''Farmers are beginning to make enough money to live,'' he says. ''We can sell our produce for a competitive price.'' He gives credit to the government for this.

But these matters are of less concern to Don Julian than farming itself. As he straightens up to his full six feet and lets the soil he has just smelled and felt fall from his hand, he smiles.

''This is what farming is all about,'' he muses. ''The right combination of soil, weather, moisture, and man.''

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