• Tue. Mar 21st, 2023

Really should Utah be exporting its alfalfa?


Mar 16, 2023

Editor’s note • This story is accessible to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting nearby journalism. The short article is the second in a series supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative primarily based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Ephraim • The final clipping came off the fields months ago, but bales of alfalfa are nonetheless stacked 20 feet or greater in the Bailey family’s enormous sheds right here exactly where significantly of Sanpete County’s alfalfa harvest winds up on its very first step on a journey into the international economy.

A single open-walled structure protects five,000 tons from the components, which can turn very carefully cured feed crop worth up to $325 a ton into mulch. Crews have been busy all winter processing this alfalfa, producing space for this spring’s harvests, anticipated to commence arriving in Might.

[Related: One crop uses more than half of Utah’s water. Here’s why.]

“It’s actually good to be capable to generate your personal meals. That is a safety. That is a be concerned that is on the minds of folks we sell to in these nations,” says Keith Bailey as a forklift darts nearby, moving alfalfa in between the open warehouse and a loading chute feeding the processing plant. “Especially in the Middle East, it is portion of their national safety.”

The machinery slices the alfalfa that had been raked and baled in the field, then squeezes it into sleeved bales weighing 450 kilograms. By decreasing the alfalfa’s size, compression reduces shipping fees and these bales have a extended way to travel.

Utah’s most effective and prolific alfalfa processor is Bailey’s father Tom, a Sanpete native who began as an alfalfa grower in the 1980s and is now amongst the West’s top exporters. Bailey Farms International now handles up to 150,000 tons a year, serving as a main conduit of higher-top quality alfalfa to dairies in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and numerous Middle Eastern nations.

Recognized as lucerne in Europe, alfalfa is native to the Middle East and was very first cultivated in Iran thousands of years ago. But it is now the agricultural mainstay of the Intermountain West exactly where the term alfalfa was almost certainly coined.

Even though the Baileys and their associates are proud of their good results in establishing an export industry for Idaho and Utah-grown alfalfa, this practice has been increasingly criticized, pretty or not, as “exporting” the West’s scarce water sources.

Exactly where the state spends its water

Alfalfa makes use of a substantial quantity of water, as significantly as 450,000 gallons to generate a ton. Some observers wonder regardless of whether exporting this crop is an unwise use of a resource that is below escalating stress in the face of stubborn drought and exponential urban development.

But Bailey believes targeting growers is not only unfair, it is hazardous — and ignores simple financial principles.

“It is correct that alfalfa makes use of most of Utah’s water, but reduce all the alfalfa out, now what are you going to do with Utah’s water that is going to be economically helpful?” he posed. “The U.S.’s greatest organic resource is its capability to develop meals, sufficient to feed our personal folks as properly as significantly of the planet. With that comes a fantastic duty to make positive that we’re performing it effectively as feasible, and that we share that advantage.”

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Alfalfa and other hay crops use about two-thirds of the water diverted in Utah. As the state explores approaches to resolve its developing water crisis, numerous are searching to agricultural producers to additional lessen their water use so far more can be accessible to sustain residential development and new industries and replenish Utah’s rivers and lakes.

The vast majority of Utah’s irrigated croplands, about 1 million acres, develop alfalfa mainly because that is what grows greatest in this atmosphere, they say.

“If we could develop orchards we would develop orchards,” Bailey says. “It would be significantly far more profitable.”

According to U.S. census information, Utah exported $126 million worth of alfalfa in 2020, or 29% of the state’s total harvest by worth. But this framing distorts the correct export image, according to Bailey. The worth of a ton of exported solution is far higher than a ton that remains in Utah mainly because of the elevated shipping and processing fees.

He estimated the share of Utah-grown hay sent overseas to be about six to eight%, or 120,000 to 160,000 tons final year when the total harvest was just more than two million tons.

At his month-to-month press conference final month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox defended alfalfa exports as essential to the survival of rural Utah.

“That’s the piece that keeps their farms alive, that is the point that basically enables them to do all the other items that they’re performing on these farms as properly,” stated Cox, who hails from a hay-developing household in Sanpete County. “It’s actually vital that our farmers are capable to make income to retain agriculture alive.”

U.S. meals and crop exports reached an all-time peak final year, worth $196 billion, an 11% raise more than the prior year, according to the U.S. Division of Agriculture. Hay’s share was a record $1.six billion, totaling four.four million tons, almost all of it.

Financial boon, water drain

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alfalfa stacked for export at Bailey Farms. Utah exported $126 million worth of alfalfa in 2020.

Officials applaud climbing exports due to the fact they support appropriate the nation’s chronic trade imbalances, specifically with Pacific Rim nations, and bring income to America’s rural regions.

But some observers are uneasy with exporting water-intensive crops from the arid American West, exactly where water is becoming increasingly scarce mainly because of climate transform. Is it a great thought for Utah growers to send their alfalfa to faraway dairies?

Eric Ewert, a professor of geography at Weber State University, thinks not. He believes the time has come for the West’s farmers to move away from alfalfa.

“We’re just so attached to the farm mythology. As a nation, it is portion of our origin story, this bedrock thought of household farms, even although most of them are corporate,” Ewert says. “But the basic flaw is alfalfa is a water-thirsty crop, and we reside in a desert, so it is a mismatch from the starting.”

Even though alfalfa may make financial sense to develop in Utah, its ecological footprint is a issue in today’s planet.

“Maybe that wasn’t such a be concerned when we had a smaller sized population and a climate that wasn’t drying and a lake that wasn’t disappearing. But now, these are the realities,” Ewert says. “It’s just an anachronism continuing to market some thing that was by no means developed for this atmosphere.”

Since of upstream diversions, largely to feed agriculture, Utah’s saline terminal lakes do not acquire sufficient inflow to guarantee their survival as functional ecosystems. Wonderful Salt Lake is severely depleted and facing ecological collapse and Sevier Lake no longer exists as a lake.

The federal government subsidized Western water improvement in portion to assistance agricultural production in an arid area dependent on irrigation. Shipping alfalfa overseas defeats the goal of this enormous public investment in infrastructure, due to the fact exported hay is not accessible to feed the West’s livestock and dairy industries, some critics say.

“Exporting water in the type of hay from an arid atmosphere to someplace else just does not make any sense, except, apparently, economically,” Ewert says. “It’s not sustainable. It just does not match our climate and our future.”

But other academics have an opposite view. University of California, Davis, economist Dan Sumner is deeply skeptical of arguments that Western growers should really not ship their items overseas.

“It’s so simplistic, it is incorrect,” Sumner says. “You generate what you are actually great at and you ship it to whoever desires to spend the most. That is what’s great for the nearby economy. It actually is and if you stated, ‘We will not let the hay leave,’ that will hurt your nearby economy, not support it. That is closest to a theorem as you get in economics.”

Nearly free of charge to ship

Farmers in Utah and Idaho develop the world’s greatest alfalfa and they do it effectively, according to Sumner. Exporting surplus hay to nations that have to have to generate protein for their folks tends to make best sense, he says. Plus shipping alfalfa across an ocean turns out to be low-cost thanks to the U.S.’s substantial trade deficits with China and Korea.

Accordingly, ships usually leave California ports empty soon after disgorging containers complete of electronics and appliances, so there is lots of excess space on these outbound vessels for alfalfa and other West-grown agricultural commodities, according to Sumner.

“The boats are nearly free of charge going the other path,” he says. “The trucking from Utah to the port is far more pricey than the six,000 miles floating on a boat. There’s absolutely nothing far more effective. You have got six folks operating on a boat that is got umpteen thousand container loads, rather than 1 guy pulling 1 or two. And around no power per container.”

Years ago, Tom Bailey figured out how to operate this circumstance to his benefit, constructing trade relationships with dairy producers in Asian nations whose geography does not lend itself to developing the protein-wealthy alfalfa dairies want.

He began out in 1996 compressing his personal alfalfa, grown on 1,000 acres the household owns about Ephraim, into cubes to ship to Japan. Quickly other growers have been promoting alfalfa to Bailey Farms, whose network has due to the fact expanded to 600 producers, such as numerous in Idaho and some in Nevada and Wyoming.

Bailey Farms has due to the fact acquired three,700 acres it irrigates in Box Elder County. Currently the firm processes up to 150,000 tons a year at 3 plants situated in Utah’s greatest alfalfa-developing regions: Ephraim, Tremonton and Sugarville. Collectively the plants employ about 60.

At a price of 20 to 25 tons an hour, the machinery compresses the dried plant into sleeves measuring four by three by three feet and the resulting half-ton bales are loaded into containers to be trucked to Salt Lake City. There the containers are transferred to trains bound for the port at Extended Beach and then place on ships headed across the Pacific.

The elder Bailey is away on a church mission so he was not accessible for an interview. But Keith created himself accessible to give journalists from The Salt Lake Tribune a appear into his family’s organization and rebut criticisms leveled at alfalfa exports.

“If we sell hay to China, their dollars come into our economy. Is that us supporting China’s economy or China supporting our economy?” stated Bailey, a father of 4 girls with a side gig in the winter as a pro snowmobile racer. “By and significant, Utah is supporting China’s economy by our acquiring habits. So we are encouraging China to assistance Utah’s economy or bringing Utah dollars back from China into Utah.”

Utah growers generate way far more alfalfa than nearby dairies can use, so they have no decision but to sell it to California and overseas dairies. In turn, Utah imports water-intensive crops that its farms can not develop.

“Do you assume Utah can kill all the alfalfa and generate sufficient fruit and vegetables to sustain our state? Not a opportunity,” Bailey says. “This is why I really feel like this is so hazardous a narrative for us to be pursuing.”

Some of the greatest in the planet

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s alfalfa is renowned for its higher top quality, although the state makes use of far more water on alfalfa than on something else.

Alfalfa is categorized into 3 grades — supreme, premium and A grade — according to its nutritional content material. With their cool nights and trustworthy irrigation, Utah and Idaho are famed for their supreme-grade alfalfa. Asia dairies mix this imported solution with the reduce grade alfalfa grown domestically so what they feed their cows meets nutritional requirements.

According to Sumner, it tends to make sense for the U.S. to export its greatest hay, which comes completely from Western states.

“Even although the shipping fees are not that higher, you are not going to ship it that far unless it is the greatest stuff,” Sumner says. “You do not want to load a entire bunch of transportation fees onto a lousy bale of hay.”

He says Western growers have focused far more on escalating the top quality of their alfalfa rather than the yield volumes.

“That’s not the margin that the [buyers] are pushing,” Sumner says. “So it is top quality per acre that is going up.”

Utah’s dry climates are basically excellent for alfalfa mainly because the harvest need to remedy in the field for 5 to seven days soon after it is reduce. Curing instances raise in the moister climates and if the reduce alfalfa is rained on it will probably spoil.

“Arizona produces a lot of alfalfa hay. It does not generate a lot of higher-top quality alfalfa hay mainly because it gets so hot. When it is hot, alfalfa grows rapid, and it requires all of these nutrients into developing alternatively of maintaining them in the plant,” Bailey says. “High-top quality alfalfa hay grows greatest when you have a cooler season, specially cooler nights, warmer days. Since of our mountain valleys, we develop a higher-top quality alfalfa, but it nonetheless offers it the capability to dry down. There’s not a lot of regions that do this.”

Midwestern farmers also develop a lot alfalfa, but their crops are reduce top quality and can’t endure shipping extended distances devoid of spoiling.

In Utah, alfalfa matures in about 25 to 35 days and a farmer can collect up to 4 harvests a year from the very same field. If growers run out of water to irrigate in a dry year, their crop will not generate alfalfa, but the plants will probably survive if they can acquire water the subsequent year.

As far as Bailey sees it, alfalfa is not a mismatch for Utah, but a best match.

“The hay that we develop right here is not just any alfalfa hay,” he stated. “It’s far more of a specialty crop that can be grown right here far more effectively than in other locations.”