Thirsty Crops and Hungry Cities
“Why do we grow thirsty crops in the desert?” It’s a question that the Arizona Farm Bureau has been hearing more and more over the years, but especially in recent months. Decades-long drought on the Colorado River has led to severe water cuts in Arizona. In 2022, the Bureau of Reclamation (the federal agency in charge of water storage and delivery in the West) declared the first Tier One Shortage on the river. That declaration triggered “shortage sharing” guidelines that required Arizona to forgo 512,000-acre-feet of its 2.8 million acre-foot allotment of Colorado River water. Those cuts fell largely on the backs of agricultural water users in Central Arizona, who rely on the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal to deliver that water to their farms. Yet every time we tell this story, and explain the implications of eliminating half of Central Arizona’s agricultural water supply, we’re met with the same question: why are we growing thirsty crops in the desert?
To answer that, I like to ask a question of my own: how are we going to feed hungry cities without growing thirsty crops?
Agriculture uses water to create food for your family and mine. And there’s no better example of this than one of Arizona’s most frequently debated (and often villainized) crops: alfalfa. All the time, we hear that alfalfa isn’t a “food” commodity, it takes a significant amount of water to grow, and it has no place in a desert landscape. And while it’s true that you and I don’t regularly enjoy a flake of hay for breakfast, that hay is a major (and irreplaceable) contributor to something we likely do consume on a regular basis: milk. Historically, dairy products are some of the most regionally specific commodities. Shipping costs and perishability require dairy to be produced close to the end market. In Arizona’s case, 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. To maximize efficiency, it makes sense for their feed supply to be close, too.
The Logistics of Growing Alfalfa
But wait: if we’re in the middle of a historic drought, why don’t we just grow the feed somewhere that does have water and ship it here? Isn’t it more sustainable to locate production where the resources exist? Well, if sustainability has anything to say about it, the answer is a resounding no. First, shipping feed requires resources as well: time, labor and significant fossil fuel use are needed to move the quantities of feed required to sustain an entire dairy industry. But to grow this feed “somewhere else” also ignores the biggest advantage that Arizona’s farmers have in the world of crop production: our climate.
The Ecosystem Alfalfa Creates
Our warm, dry climate facilitates an ecosystem where alfalfa thrives. As a result, Arizona’s alfalfa yields – the amount of alfalfa grown per acre of land – are among the highest in the world. Our farmers are able to produce an average of 8.2 tons of alfalfa per acre, compared to the nationwide average of 3.2 tons. To grow an equivalent amount of alfalfa anywhere else would require more land, more fossil fuel resources, and, yes – more water.
When you hear that agriculture uses 72% of the water in Arizona, 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. Thanks to our alfalfa and decades of innovation in dairy genetics and production practices, 97 percent of the milk we see in our stores came from an Arizona dairy – no matter the brand. About 70 percent of the milk produced in our state is purchased by Arizona customers, including brands we all know and love, like Daisy Sour Cream, Shamrock Farms, and Fairlife. Taking water from farmers doesn’t actually create more water to go around. But it does erode the reliability and affordability of our food system. In a time when inflationary pressures and economic uncertainty are making it harder and harder for many families to put food on the table, why would our state further erode that stability by limiting our ability to produce food right here in Arizona?
Ultimately, pointing to the production of “thirsty crops” as the problem in our water issues oversimplifies a complex system and discounts Arizona’s unique ecological features. Thanks to our climate, our innovation, and yes, our water, Arizona farmers produce more food, of higher quality, more efficiently, and at times of year that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. Water use is not water waste. We all need Arizona agriculture, and Arizona agriculture needs water. So the next time your family sits down to a bowl of ice cream, a yogurt parfait, or just a tall glass of milk, remember: alfalfa (and water) made it possible.