An Agriculture Engineer’s Perspective on Alfalfa and Water
Last February, Rosie on the House and Arizona Farm Bureau hosted agriculture consultant and Arizona Farm Bureau member Nicholas Kenny. His insights into Arizona agriculture’s ongoing innovations over the decades and his understanding of alfalfa and water use were tremendous.
But we had other questions for him and even in the hour we stole from him, we were unable to get to all our questions. So, we followed up with Nicholas Kenny and he was gracious enough to respond.
Arizona Agriculture: Knowing this will help farmers and ranchers talk about the alfalfa and water issue, what’s important for us to explain to Arizonans about our use of water for agriculture?
Kenny: Arizona families need to be educated on the fact that agricultural water use is directly related to the food that is consumed in the process of most peoples’ everyday living. To meet the caloric and nutritional demand of an urbanized populace, farmers convert water and other inputs into food and fiber that supports life. In post-subsistence agriculture, a small number of professionals produce the food for the entirety of the population who are otherwise engaged in their useful endeavors.
This is the type of agricultural economy we have in Arizona, where approximately 2% of the population produces 100% of the food and fiber. Simplistically, the legitimate accounting of the water utilized in the process of raising the agricultural products lies with the 100%, not just the 2%.
Arizona Agriculture: Many are concerned about exporting our hay to other countries.
Kenny: Alfalfa hay has been exported from the Southern Arizona and Southern California deserts on a regular basis since the early 1970s. Agriculture economies have almost always been subject to the free market fundamentals of supply and demand, produce where it is most feasible and delivered to where it is most valuable. Arizona is an excellent place to grow alfalfa because of our favorable climate that allows for up to 8 to 10 harvests of premium quality alfalfa per year (compared to 3 to 4 in other areas).
Trade routes were established to move food and fiber from the Americas around the world over 500 years ago. We have exported food under a free-market economy while simultaneously being the most prosperous people ever. I much prefer that we can be exporters of American food than rely on imported food.
Of course, the acute discussion point is whether we should be utilizing the limited water resource in the desert to produce alfalfa for consumption across the ocean. The concern is that there will be detrimental impacts on the actual residents of Arizona. I agree that this concern is legitimate.
I’ll share a few points to frame this discussion.
- It is estimated that only 20% of Arizona alfalfa is sold for export; the majority is grown for local consumption.
- The demand for alfalfa in the multiple foreign economies is higher than in America, enough to pay to have it shipped thousands of miles across an ocean.
- Only a small amount of the water used in producing alfalfa is exported. Most water is recycled as part of the water cycle.
- Food security is a very strong deterrent for violence and helping people to prosper where they live is a humane venture.
Arizona Agriculture: Talk about the Saudi farm. What should we understand?
Kenny: Foreign ownership of farmland is potentially a challenge across America. Agriculture is one of America’s greatest assets and has always been a resource for the well-being of Americans. Many other nations around the world do not have the resources necessary to feed their citizens. Thus, these countries have taken steps to better secure food for their citizens by purchasing agriculture assets in prime American production regions. This trend has increased as historically impoverished countries become more affluent, having adequate money from their local resources (oil, manufacturing and more), but still do not have the land, climate, water, or labor resources to meet their nutritional needs.
In Arizona, we are primarily talking about Middle Eastern and Asian entities, legally purchasing or leasing land to produce alfalfa for transport back to the Middle East and Asia to support a growing dependence on dairy calories including milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
In recent history, wars would have been waged to secure these calories for a developing culture. In our time, it is a mostly peaceful trade of dollars for resources. Whether this is good public policy for the long-standing well-being of Arizona is certainly debatable. It is currently a legal practice for a foreign entity to own Arizona farmland.
My observation on this topic is that foreign entities have such a heavy cost in the production and transport of alfalfa hay that they do not have room to make production errors. Thus, these entities employ excellent farming practices and make very efficient use of the inputs, including water. These entities also employ many local workers and support local communities by purchasing equipment, supplies, vehicles, fertilizers, etc. from local providers, the same providers who would be used if anyone else were farming these acres.
This brings me to my last point on this topic. The foreign-owned farms in question are not new farms. They have typically been operated for decades. At some junction, the previous owner(s) of these properties found it in their best interest to sell these properties.
Arizona Agriculture: Water continues to be a challenge. Talk about the issues in Arizona and share any predictions you may have.
Kenny: Water has always been a challenge in the desert, every desert. There are biblical stories that detail cycles of feasts and famine, the stories of drought cycles in the desert. Our Arizona deserts follow the same patterns, long duration of drought years and short periods of wet years. We have done an excellent job of subduing these cycles by building dams, reservoirs, and canals and this infrastructure has allowed the West to develop in a way unimagined 100 years ago.
However, water is still a natural challenge. It is not subject to popular opinion, political platforms, or ambitious development. In average and wet years, there is plenty of water in Arizona. However, subsequent years of drought have always proven difficult. We are currently 20 years into a drought period and water storage in much of the West has declined to its limits. Some entities have had the foresight to store water in times of abundance and I expect these communities to see themselves through the current drought and survive to the next wet period without much grief.
An ongoing issue in Arizona is urban overdevelopment. We have seen the trend of retiring productive farmland and replacing it with homes and multi-family residences. These homes require long-term water assurance based on direct consumption. What is not considered is the much greater indirect water requirement which is the water associated with feeding and clothing the residents for a lifetime. In this modern iteration, this will have to be accomplished after eliminating the farmland that was necessary to feed and clothe the smaller number of residents of the previous generation.
I predict there will be a time in the not-to-distant future when communities will be abandoned for lack of water, and we will regret that we have permanently traded prime farmland for apartments, condos, and tract homes.
Arizona Agriculture: We’re hearing the term “New Water” a lot. In other words, new sources of water include pumping excess water from the Midwest to the thirsty west. What’s your take on this?
Kenny: This topic is unbelievably nuanced and of peak interest to me. It is an engineer’s dream topic. I’ll summarize the take home points on this.
As more people have moved into the Southwest, more water has been required. Consider that Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas have a combined population of 25 million residents in 2023 compared to 13 million in 1980. It is a resource balance challenge. At some point, there was significantly less demand for the water resource than what nature provided. That is not the case now. If we are to sustain the current demand on water, additional or “new” water will need to be brought into the region.
One approach is to transfer fresh water from more abundant regions into the Southwest. The primary targets are the Mississippi River watershed and the Columbia River Watershed. Ideally, water is only taken during times of excess, like flood situations, and the associated ecosystems are not detrimentally impacted. Of course, the folks who currently reside in these areas have a say as to whether this is a good idea.
Another source of “new” water is through desalination of ocean water. Ongoing consideration is be given to desalinating water from the Gulf of California and piping it into Southern Arizona, across Sonora, Mexico. Another approach is to desalinate Pacific Ocean water along the coast of California for use in California cities to reduce their reliance upon the Colorado River. The reduced use of the river water would allow for the supply to be more available across the entire path of the Colorado River.
Wise water projects in the past have gotten us to this point, it is time for modern projects based on the current and future population.
Like I stated earlier, this challenge is an engineer’s dream, not a dreamer’s dream. These projects will require political will and force like we have never seen before, an immense amount of dedicated energy development and consumption, huge efforts to frame and minimize the negative impacts on the ecosystem, and an enormous amount of money.
Editor’s Note: The article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Arizona Farm Bureau’s Arizona Agriculture. The February Rosie on the House Show does feature additional insights we garnered from Mr. Kenny.