Need to Utah be exporting its alfalfa?

Editor’s note • This story is readily available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting nearby journalism. The write-up 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 huge sheds right here exactly where a lot of Sanpete County’s alfalfa harvest winds up on its 1st step on a journey into the worldwide economy.

One particular 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 area for this spring’s harvests, anticipated to start arriving in May possibly.

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

“It’s definitely good to be in a position to create your personal meals. That is a safety. That is a be concerned that is on the minds of men and women we sell to in these nations,” says Keith Bailey as a forklift darts nearby, moving alfalfa involving 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 minimizing the alfalfa’s size, compression reduces shipping charges and these bales have a extended way to travel.

Utah’s most prosperous 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 major exporters. Bailey Farms International now handles up to 150,000 tons a year, serving as a key conduit of higher-good quality alfalfa to dairies in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and many Middle Eastern nations.

Recognized as lucerne in Europe, alfalfa is native to the Middle East and was 1st cultivated in Iran thousands of years ago. But it is now the agricultural mainstay of the Intermountain West exactly where the term alfalfa was in all probability coined.

Even though the Baileys and their associates are proud of their achievement in establishing an export marketplace 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 a lot as 450,000 gallons to create a ton. Some observers wonder regardless of whether exporting this crop is an unwise use of a resource that is beneath 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 accurate 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 effective?” he posed. “The U.S.’s greatest all-natural resource is its potential to develop meals, adequate to feed our personal men and women as properly as a lot of the globe. With that comes a fantastic duty to make confident that we’re carrying out it effectively as probable, 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 strategies to resolve its increasing water crisis, lots of are hunting to agricultural producers to additional cut down their water use so additional can be readily available 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 due to the fact that is what grows very best in this atmosphere, they say.

“If we could develop orchards we would develop orchards,” Bailey says. “It would be a lot additional 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 accurate export image, according to Bailey. The worth of a ton of exported item is far higher than a ton that remains in Utah due to the fact of the elevated shipping and processing charges.

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 vital to the survival of rural Utah.

“That’s the piece that keeps their farms alive, that is the factor that basically makes it possible for them to do all the other items that they’re carrying out on these farms as properly,” stated Cox, who hails from a hay-increasing family members in Sanpete County. “It’s definitely essential that our farmers are in a position to make income to hold agriculture alive.”

U.S. meals and crop exports reached an all-time peak final year, worth $196 billion, an 11% improve 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 because they aid appropriate the nation’s chronic trade imbalances, especially 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 due to the fact of climate modify. Is it a very good 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 family members 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 could possibly make financial sense to develop in Utah, its ecological footprint is a dilemma in today’s globe.

“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 right now, these are the realities,” Ewert says. “It’s just an anachronism continuing to market anything that was in no way created for this atmosphere.”

Since of upstream diversions, largely to feed agriculture, Utah’s saline terminal lakes do not obtain adequate 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 help agricultural production in an arid area dependent on irrigation. Shipping alfalfa overseas defeats the goal of this huge public investment in infrastructure, because exported hay is not readily available to feed the West’s livestock and dairy industries, some critics say.

“Exporting water in the kind 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 ought to not ship their solutions overseas.

“It’s so simplistic, it is incorrect,” Sumner says. “You create what you are definitely very good at and you ship it to whoever desires to spend the most. That is what’s very good for the nearby economy. It definitely is and if you stated, ‘We will not let the hay leave,’ that will hurt your nearby economy, not aid 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 very best alfalfa and they do it effectively, according to Sumner. Exporting surplus hay to nations that have to have to create protein for their men and women tends to make fantastic sense, he says. Plus shipping alfalfa across an ocean turns out to be affordable thanks to the U.S.’s substantial trade deficits with China and Korea.

Accordingly, ships typically leave California ports empty just after disgorging containers complete of electronics and appliances, so there is a lot of excess area 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 additional pricey than the six,000 miles floating on a boat. There’s nothing at all additional effective. You have got six men and women operating on a boat that is got umpteen thousand container loads, rather than a single guy pulling a single or two. And around no power per container.”

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

He began out in 1996 compressing his personal alfalfa, grown on 1,000 acres the family members owns about Ephraim, into cubes to ship to Japan. Quickly other growers have been promoting alfalfa to Bailey Farms, whose network has because expanded to 600 producers, like lots of in Idaho and some in Nevada and Wyoming.

Bailey Farms has because acquired three,700 acres it irrigates in Box Elder County. These days the firm processes up to 150,000 tons a year at 3 plants situated in Utah’s greatest alfalfa-increasing 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 readily available for an interview. But Keith produced himself readily available to give journalists from The Salt Lake Tribune a appear into his family’s enterprise 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 huge, Utah is supporting China’s economy by our acquiring habits. So we are encouraging China to help Utah’s economy or bringing Utah dollars back from China into Utah.”

Utah growers create way additional alfalfa than nearby dairies can use, so they have no option but to sell it to California and overseas dairies. In turn, Utah imports water-intensive crops that its farms cannot develop.

“Do you consider Utah can kill all the alfalfa and create adequate 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 very best in the globe

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s alfalfa is renowned for its higher good quality, although the state makes use of additional 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 reputable irrigation, Utah and Idaho are famed for their supreme-grade alfalfa. Asia dairies mix this imported item with the decrease 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 very best hay, which comes completely from Western states.

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

He says Western growers have focused additional on escalating the good quality of their alfalfa rather than the yield volumes.

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

Utah’s dry climates are basically perfect for alfalfa due to the fact the harvest should remedy in the field for 5 to seven days just after it is reduce. Curing instances improve 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 create a lot of higher-good quality alfalfa hay due to the fact it gets so hot. When it is hot, alfalfa grows rapid, and it requires all of these nutrients into increasing alternatively of maintaining them in the plant,” Bailey says. “High-good quality alfalfa hay grows very best when you have a cooler season, specifically cooler nights, warmer days. Since of our mountain valleys, we develop a higher-good quality alfalfa, but it nonetheless offers it the potential to dry down. There’s not a lot of regions that do this.”

Midwestern farmers also develop a lot alfalfa, but their crops are decrease good quality and can’t endure shipping extended distances with out spoiling.

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

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

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

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