Could Climate Change Put an End to Arizona's Alfalfa Heyday? | Civil Eats

Could Climate Change Put an End to Arizona’s Alfalfa Heyday?

As the Colorado River drops to new lows, the future of the water-intensive cattle feed crop in the state—and the dairy industry it makes possible—are in question.

Stacks of rectangle hay bales stacked high in the Mohave Valley Arizona

It’s always alfalfa season in Arizona. In most other parts of the country, the perennial crop grows tall enough to harvest just a few times a year. But in the sun-drenched Southwest, the irrigated fields allow the crop to grow year-round, to the tune of 8.5 tons harvested for every acre and $397 million a year. All farmers need to do is add water.

At least that’s been the case for the many decades that alfalfa has boomed and bloomed in the Arizona desert, providing feed to the region’s megalithic dairy industry. Now, accelerating climate change and depleting water availability could change this.

As the Colorado River has reached historically low levels this summer, the future of Arizona’s water-thirsty alfalfa and irrigated agriculture has been called in to question. In August, federal officials declared the first-ever water shortage in Lake Mead, one of the two giant reservoirs fed by the river. This triggered mandatory water cuts outlined in a 2019 plan to prevent further, more dangerous drops in water. Arizona faces the sharpest cut: 18 percent of the state’s share of the water will be reduced in 2022, compared to 7 percent for Nevada, 5 percent for Mexico, and no reductions for California.

This initial cut will almost entirely affect farms in the state. It will reduce 65 percent of the water used by farmers who rely on the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which channels water to the Central Arizona counties of Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima. This will likely lead to significant changes in these counties, where many farmers grow massive fields of cotton and alfalfa in rotation.

Historically low water levels in the Colorado River have led to the first-ever cuts in Arizona’s water allotment from the watershed: 18 percent in 2022.

Stephen Miller, a district supervisor for Pinal County, said cuts could have a “catastrophic impact on Pinal County’s agricultural community,” adding that it will be up to farmers to determine how they adjust to these changes. “Farmers will need to identify alternative methods of securing water which will vary from additional groundwater pumping to transporting water from secure water sources outside of Arizona,” said Miller.

And yet if the region’s historic drought continues, as climatologists project it likely will, farmers will also likely fallow alfalfa fields and consider making a switch to other, less water-intensive crops. Such a transition, however, could also require reconfiguring the interlocking relationship between Arizona’s dairy industry and the alfalfa that has long been embedded in the state’s food economy.

Cattle Crops Are Draining the Colorado River Basin

Alfalfa has been praised for being a drought-resilient crop, able to withstand the heat of the Arizona sun. Yet, there is no way to get around the fact that it requires an immense, increasingly untenable quantity of water. In the western U.S., irrigated crops fed to cattle—alfalfa, grass, and corn silage—are the largest consumer of river water, according to a study in Nature Sustainability. The authors found that nearly half of the Colorado’s water goes to irrigating cattle crops, with 32 percent going to alfalfa. A dairy cow requires a lot of indirect water, consuming 50 to 55 pounds of dry feed per day, by one estimate.

“If you’re going to work your way out of a water shortage in the West, one of the first things you want to pay attention to is where most of the water is going,” said Brian Richter, the lead author on the study and the president of Sustainable Waters. “That’s going to lead you to the producers of cattle feed crops.”

The daunting question is how to transition away from cattle feed crops, ingrained in the history, livelihoods, and food supply chains of Arizona and the U.S.

“If you’re going to work your way out of a water shortage in the West, one of the first things you want to pay attention to is where most of the water is going.”

Alfalfa’s expansion in Arizona coincides with waves of colonization. It was first brought to Mexico and South America by way of 16th century Spanish missionaries, who later introduced it to the southwestern United States. During the Gold Rush, beginning in 1848, as European settlers moved into the West, new varieties of alfalfa were brought to the region, explained Michael Ottman, an agronomist in the school of plant sciences at the University of Arizona. In the 1950s, “the modern period of more purposeful plant breeding and selection,” as Ottman called it, alfalfa was especially bred to resist diseases and insects.

Over the past two decades, the dairy industry has expanded by nearly 5 percent in Arizona, creating a growing market for local alfalfa. Dairies are often found near alfalfa fields, given that alfalfa is a bulky crop and transporting it can be costly. They spread together “like rings of water” as one University of Arizona report said to describe the concentrated dairy industry and its input markets, such as alfalfa.

Some dairies grow their own alfalfa to control their supply, including the mega-dairy Riverview LLP, which was found to be draining southeastern Arizona’s groundwater, pockmarking the desert with wells 1,000 feet deep. Other dairies have long-term contracts with farmers to maintain a supply of the herb that his highly nutritious for cows, and therefore, generally considered indispensable.

“[Alfalfa] helps stimulate the rumen. [The dairy industry] has to get it from somewhere,” said Ottman. If Arizona farmers grow less alfalfa while the dairy industry remains in the state, Ottman predicts dairies will start trucking in hay from Idaho, California, Utah, or New Mexico, at a steeper cost.

While Ottman and other experts Civil Eats spoke to don’t see alfalfa going away entirely in Arizona, they expect the crop’s footprint to shrink. John Fleck, a former science journalist and the director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico, put it this way: “It’s the dominant crop. There’s less water, so there’s going to be less acreage irrigated and alfalfa will shrink.”

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Transition from Alfalfa Comes Down to Economics

However, there is little consensus on the degree to which alfalfa will need to shrink to meet water demands, or what crops farmers will grow instead. It’s currently up to farmers to determine how to handle next year’s water cuts. And that generally means it will be an economic decision.

“It’s about getting the most bang for your buck,” said Paco Ollerton, a farmer in Pinal County who typically grows cotton, watermelon, and triticale. For instance, Ollerton says that if he can still make more money growing cotton (another thirsty crop) on fewer acres than he would from a less-thirsty crop on more acres, then the financial incentive would there for him to keep growing cotton—even if he had to cut back on its acres. “I have to look at the whole picture,” said Ollerton.

Ollerton is waiting to see what his water allocation will be before deciding to plant, but he’s anticipating fallowing about a quarter of his farmland.

Even in the face of the current water cuts, Michelle Klieger, an agriculture economist and the founder of the agriculture business consulting firm Stratagerm Consulting, sees a strong economic incentive for farmers to continue planting alfalfa in the short term, largely because of the nearby dairy industry.

If alfalfa were to go up in price, Klieger sees dairies continuing to buy it because there are few other alternatives for nutritious feed for cows. “Even if we reduce acreage, the same number of people are going to want alfalfa, which is going to drive the price up,” said Klieger. As a result, she foresees that “the price will go up faster than the decline in the amount [of alfalfa].”

However, in the longer-term, she anticipates this could result in the dairy industry relocating. “If this becomes a multi-year problem, I would expect that the supply would be more elastic and they would move somewhere where they could get their feed costs back under control,” said Klieger.

Yuma County’s Move from Alfalfa

Yuma County, in the southwestern corner of the state, has already made a move away from cattle feed crops. Since the 1970s, the county has transformed into a major producer for lettuce and other winter vegetables, growing 90 percent of all leafy vegetables in the nation between November and March.

This shift was prompted by the Salinity Control Act of 1974, which reduced on-farm deliveries of water at the time. Between 1975 and 2015, Yuma cut its water consumption by 18 percent, according to an analysis by the Yuma County Agriculture Coalition. During this period, the number of acres of vegetables increased six-fold, while alfalfa production went down by 43 percent.

This transition also made financial sense for Yuma’s agricultural sector, which now draws in over $3.2 billion per year, over a third of Arizona’s total return from agriculture. The analysis also found that Yuma’s crop sales per acre foot of water are higher than other Arizona counties that rely on the Colorado River.

Between 1975 and 2015, Yuma County cut its water consumption by 18 percent and reduced its alfalfa production by 43 percent, while its vegetables acreage grew six-fold.

It’s a promising shift that drew the attention of Richter as an example of how Pinal, Maricopa, and Pima counties could respond to the current water cuts, without losing revenue. “Because wheat, melons, and vegetables all consume less than half the volume of water used by alfalfa, crop switching makes a great deal of sense in a hot desert like Yuma,” Richter wrote on his blog.

However, such a transition requires shifts across the food supply chain. For one, central Arizona doesn’t yet have the cooling and processing facilities that Yuma County does. “So, we need to invest in the right kind of infrastructure to allow for those less water-intensive crops,” said Rimjhim Aggarwal, a professor in the school of sustainability at Arizona State University.

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There is also a need for reliable market channels for fruits and vegetables, added Aggarwal. That way, the produce industry can compete with the demand for cattle crops from the dairy industry Maricopa and Pinal County. “There are a lot of interesting discussions about how we can better connect farmers to the [mostly urban] demand centers for fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Then there’s the challenge of a lifelong cotton and alfalfa farmer scoring contracts growing vegetables and fruit. Grocery stores and wholesale buyers want to make sure a farmer can deliver, said George Frisvold, a professor at the University of Arizona’s department of agriculture and resource economics. Yet it’s hard to demonstrate this if you’re a new to growing a crop.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” said Frisvold. “You can’t produce if you don’t have the marketing channels, but you can’t get the marketing channels until you have a record of production.”

Tilting Arizona in Favor of Water Conservation

Experts say there are ways that agricultural policy can steer farmers’ decision making so that it is more (or less) in favor of conserving water. For instance, farmers receive federal subsidies for planting cotton, payments that are part of the U.S. farm bill and incentivize planting cotton over other crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Similarly, the dairy and meat industries receive billions in federal subsidies, propping up the industries driving the demand for alfalfa.

“If some kind of financial incentive or compensation can be provided to help the farmers make the transition, that’s always a much easier pill for the farmers to swallow,” said Richter. He sees funding or loans for capital investments, such as help switching to different irrigation systems suited for other crops, as a good start.

“If it’s untenable to continue to produce so much cattle feed within the Colorado River Basin,” said Richter. “Let’s figure out what it’s going to cost to do something different.”

Greta Moran is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats based in Queens, New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Greta writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. Read more >

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