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Home / Opinion / Commentary / Arizona’s alfalfa is essential, water crisis solution that leads to food supply issue is no fix

Arizona’s alfalfa is essential, water crisis solution that leads to food supply issue is no fix

drought, alfalfa, Colorado River, Arizona Farm Bureau

Kelly Anderson shows how dry one of his fields is in August of 2022, in Maricopa. Anderson grows specialty crops for the flower industry and leases land to alfalfa farmers whose crops feed cattle at nearby dairy farms. While concerns have been expressed about alfalfa being grown in the state during the drought, that criticism needs to stop as alfalfa is a major contributor to something we rely on as a nutritional staple: milk. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Concerns over the Colorado River have led the everyday Arizonan to think about water in ways they haven’t before. As a result, much has been made as of late about growing “thirsty crops” in Arizona’s desert climate. It doesn’t take long to find an opinion or editorial about how farming alfalfa is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the water system in Arizona.

This rhetoric needs to stop. Here’s why.

When you hear that agriculture uses nearly three-fourths of Arizona’s water, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the best way to save water for growing urban populations is to take it from the largest user. In reality, though, that water is already being consumed by that urban population each and every time they sit down for a meal.

alfalfa, Arizona Farm Bureau, dairy, drought, Colorado River

Chelsea McGuire

While you and I don’t regularly enjoy a flake of alfalfa for breakfast, alfalfa is a major contributor to something we do rely on as a nutritional staple: milk. According to United Dairymen of Arizona, 70% of all the milk produced in Arizona is consumed directly by Arizona customers, including Kroger, Albertsons, Daisy Sour Cream, and Fairlife. In fact, 97% of the milk sold in Arizona grocery stores comes from an Arizona family dairy, regardless of the brand under which it’s sold. Our Arizona dairymen are some of the most efficient milk producers in the world. These efficiencies are made possible by harnessing the benefits of a desert climate, improved genetics in dairy cattle and, importantly, high-quality feed.

Not all alfalfa is created, well-produced, equally

That may beg the question: why not import that feed from somewhere else? But that question assumes all alfalfa is produced equally. Nothing is further from the truth. Arizona’s alfalfa yields are among the highest in the world. Our farmers produce an average of 8.3 tons of alfalfa per acre, compared to the nationwide average of 3.2 tons. That’s largely because our climate gives us a competitive advantage in growing these crops. To grow them anywhere else would require more land, more fossil fuel resources, and, yes, more water.

Our dairy industry didn’t locate here by happenstance. It came here because our climate facilitates efficiencies that create a strategic advantage for the effectiveness of the industry. Our dairies must be located close to markets in Phoenix to provide the liquid milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products consumed by a growing population at a cost that population can afford, and it has developed a local supply of critical inputs in order to maximize efficiency.

In any other commercial venture, that strategic advantage would be celebrated with ribbon cuttings and presidential site visits. Why do we villainize it when it relates to food production?

Rather than asking whether we should be growing “thirsty crops,” perhaps we should be asking how we are going to feed and clothe our hungry cities. Better yet, we should be asking how we find a sustainable balance for everyone. A water crisis solution that leads to a food supply crisis is no solution at all.

About Arizona Farm Bureau

The Arizona Farm Bureau is a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving and improving the agriculture industry through member involvement in advocacy, communication and education that include programs and services to support our Arizona farmers and ranchers and our 25,000 members. For information on member benefits call 480.635.3609. For recipes, farmers markets, farm products and farms to visit, go to Arizona Farm Bureau’s www.fillyourplate.org. Also, visit www.azfb.org/water.

Chelsea McGuire is the Arizona Farm Bureau Government Relations Director.

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