EPHRAIM — Utah farmers are helping to feed China by sending massive amounts of hay overseas. But some critics say those farmers are essentially shipping our precious water over there as well, in the form of this water-intensive crop.
Alfalfa hay is a crop that guzzles lots of water and yet, in the dry western states, it is one of the biggest money-makers for farmers. The secret is lots of water while it's growing, and no water as it's cut and dried.
"It's a great climate because we have less rain damage," said Tom Bailey, of Bailey Farms International, which exports thousands of tons of alfalfa every year, much of it to China
The Escalante Ranch in eastern Utah is in the same business. It was bought last year by Simon Shao, an American businessman born in China. Utah's high-quality, high-protein hay is much in demand in China to feed dairy cows.
"Their dairy industry is growing so fast," Shoa said.
But growing hay in a desert and shipping it overseas is all wrong-headed, according to Wade Graham, water quality expert and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University's graduate school of public policy.
"Given the lack of alignment between costs and benefits, I don't think it makes any sense whatsoever," Graham said.
He says the ships bound for China with containers full of hay are essentially hauling away our water.
"We are exporting not just water to China, we are exporting the ecosystems and the future sustainability of the Colorado River Basin to China," Graham said. "The majority of the water that we divert from the Colorado River is to produce hay — both alfalfa and just regular grass."
He says because of subsidies and old water rights, farmers don't pay the true cost of their water, especially the environmental costs. As the water supply for cities gets stretched ever thinner, he'd like to see restrictive water laws loosened up so there's a truly free market.
"If you were to allocate an acre-foot of water to a high tech industry in California, it would produce 16,000 jobs or there abouts," Graham said. "Allocate the same amount of water to growing alfalfa, it produces about eight jobs in the entire chain. So it's 2,000 times more efficient to move the water, and yet our laws don't allow it."
Tom Bailey doesn't dispute the notion that water is worth more in the city.
"There's no crop grown, no food chain that would compete with what urbanization would pay for the value of water, or how you would value water," Bailey said.
But he argues that when there's a major shift of water, away from farms and toward the cities, society pays a big price for that.
"I'm not so sure that the public wants to see the day when agriculture's diminished, or minimized to the point that our food chain is sacrificed or jeopardized. I don't think we want to do that," Bailey said.
Bailey also argues that alfalfa gets a bad rap. In terms of food value per gallon of water, Bailey says it compares favorably to other crops. That's because there's no waste left in the field. Unlike corn and other grains used to feed animals, alfalfa has the virtue of being entirely edible. Everything that gets cut gets used.
"It does take a considerable amount of water. But when you harvest alfalfa, you harvest and feed 100 percent of what you harvest," Bailey said.
"Yeah, (alfalfa is) a good use of the water, of course," Shoa said. "(We're) not wasting any water."
"We grow more produce on more land with less water than we've ever done before," Bailey said.
Many farmers have sold water to cities in recent years, particularly in California. But Graham believes geographic and legal barriers prevent it from being a rational marketplace.
Long-term, a lot of people are keeping an eye on this issue because the farms are where the water is.
We're always being asked to cut our water use to save the precious resource. But many people don't realize that those of us in cities and towns are only a small part of the equation. Farmers use more than 80 percent of Utah's water, and a lot of it is used for hay.