Source By Caleb Hampton
March 22, 2023
Bales of alfalfa hay sit under the sun by an Imperial Valley roadside near Calipatria. The high-protein forage crop covers roughly a third of the valley’s farmland and is harvested in the region year-round.
The Imperial Valley, a vast grid of greens, browns and yellows, produces dozens of crops. But two visual features define the valley: open channels carrying water from the Colorado River and blocks of hay that tower above the irrigation channels.
Forage crops such as alfalfa, sudangrass and bermudagrass cover more than half the Imperial Valley’s farmland. “From the growers’ perspective, alfalfa is their best crop,” said Ali Montazar, University of California Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor for Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.
But as the Colorado River dwindles, environmentalists and competing water users scorn farmers for growing the thirsty crop in a drought-stricken region. “It’s simple math,” High Country News reported last year. “Growing less hay is the only way to keep the river’s water system from collapsing.”
Much of the criticism of California’s alfalfa production focuses on the crop’s export to countries such as China, Japan and Saudi Arabia. In recent years, California has exported around 30% of its hay, with several estimates showing a higher proportion from the Imperial Valley is sold abroad. Some critics liken it to shipping “virtual water” out of a drought zone and overseas.
It is true that alfalfa needs lots of water—more than almost any crop in California. However, growers say criticism of its cultivation in the desert region overlooks important context around the nuances of crop planning, the globalized food system and alfalfa’s role in nutrition and food security. The crop is also a key contributor to the Imperial Valley’s economy.
The region’s geography is ideal for alfalfa production. Because the Imperial Valley gets year-round sun, farmers can harvest alfalfa up to 10 times per year, yielding twice as much hay as many other growing regions. “We probably have the highest yield and highest quality alfalfa in the world,” said Larry Cox, who farms in the Imperial Valley.