Alfalfa in the spotlight amid Arizona’s water challenges

Aug 2, 2023, 4:35 AM

Alfalfa farm...

Vicksburg, AZ - June 27: Hay is dried and stored at the Fondomonte alfalfa farm in Vicksburg, Arizona on Monday, June 27, 2023. (Photo by Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

(Photo by Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — A majority of Arizona’s water goes to agriculture, about 74% of the available supply, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. One crop has made headlines this year when it comes to water: alfalfa.

Alfalfa is grown primarily to feed livestock.

Julie Murphree, outreach director for Arizona Farm Bureau said it’s especially important to the state.

“It’s going to horses, it also goes to our dairy cattle… and also alfalfa is used for our beef cattle,” Murphree explained in an interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM. “Here in Arizona, the USDA ranks us at $400 million plus in cash receipts and other economic contributions from just alfalfa and other hay products.”

What Alfalfa means for Arizona

Besides our dairy and beef industries, Arizona’s climate is another reason alfalfa is so prolific in the state.

“Arizona is one of the most productive alfalfa states in the country,” Murphree said. “We can grow eight and a half tons per acre to the Midwest’s three-point-two.”

Despite how important it is to a variety of industries, alfalfa is known as a thirsty crop. As Arizona faces water challenges, the crop has come under some scrutiny.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Kris Mayes called for an end to Saudi-owned farms in Arizona. They were growing alfalfa and sending it back to their home country. Mayes looked to revoke the farms’ permits and cited the water they were using as the primary reason.

Governor Katie Hobbs called the issue “complicated.” However, Hobbs said she wanted to work to preserve Arizona’s water supply.

Alfalfa has an impact on the Arizona economy

Murphree doesn’t worry about alfalfa exports and added that not all exports are international; some go to neighboring states.

“When I talk to people that are in the industry, they say that anywhere from 15-20% of our alfalfa is exported,” she said. “But we have to remember those are dollars that come back to our economy.”

And she argued there are plenty of financial and food security-related reasons to keep growing alfalfa for in-state use, despite the water required.

“Alfalfa is a local food source for you and I, even though it might be one or two links up the chain,” she said. “You and I need alfalfa in our local food system.”

Although crops like alfalfa are the number one consumer of water in the state, they’re becoming more efficient.

“Water efficiencies are always going to be our number one priority in agriculture,” Murphree stressed. “That’s why we keep using and experimenting with different technologies, and over the decades have reduced our water use.”

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Alfalfa in the spotlight amid Arizona’s water challenges