Should Utah be exporting its alfalfa?

The state uses more water on alfalfa than on anything else. Producers argue it’s a vital part of Utah’s rural economy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alfalfa processor Keith Bailey in a barn filled with alfalfa at Bailey Farms International in Ephraim, where bales are compressed for export to Asian dairies, on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism. The article is the second in a series supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Ephraim • The last clipping came off the fields months ago, but bales of alfalfa are still stacked 20 feet or higher in the Bailey family’s massive sheds here where much of Sanpete County’s alfalfa harvest winds up on its first step on a journey into the global economy.

One open-walled structure protects 5,000 tons from the elements, which can turn carefully cured feed crop worth up to $325 a ton into mulch. Crews have been busy all winter processing this alfalfa, making room for this spring’s harvests, expected to begin arriving in May.

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

“It’s really nice to be able to produce your own food. That’s a security. That’s a worry that’s on the minds of people we sell to in these countries,” says Keith Bailey as a forklift darts nearby, moving alfalfa between the open warehouse and a loading chute feeding the processing plant. “Especially in the Middle East, it’s part of their national security.”

The machinery slices the alfalfa that had been raked and baled in the field, then squeezes it into sleeved bales weighing 450 kilograms. By reducing the alfalfa’s size, compression reduces shipping costs and these bales have a long way to travel.

Utah’s most successful and prolific alfalfa processor is Bailey’s father Tom, a Sanpete native who started as an alfalfa grower in the 1980s and is now among the West’s leading exporters. Bailey Farms International now handles up to 150,000 tons a year, serving as a major conduit of high-quality alfalfa to dairies in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and several Middle Eastern nations.

Known as lucerne in Europe, alfalfa is native to the Middle East and was first cultivated in Iran thousands of years ago. But it’s now the agricultural mainstay of the Intermountain West where the term alfalfa was probably coined.

While the Baileys and their associates are proud of their success in establishing an export market for Idaho and Utah-grown alfalfa, this practice has been increasingly criticized, fairly or not, as “exporting” the West’s scarce water resources.

Where the state spends its water

Alfalfa uses a substantial amount of water, as much as 450,000 gallons to produce a ton. Some observers wonder whether exporting this crop is an unwise use of a resource that is under increasing pressure in the face of stubborn drought and exponential urban growth.

But Bailey believes targeting growers is not only unfair, it’s dangerous — and ignores basic economic principles.

“It is true that alfalfa uses most of Utah’s water, but cut all the alfalfa out, now what are you going to do with Utah’s water that’s going to be economically beneficial?” he posed. “The U.S.’s greatest natural resource is its ability to grow food, enough to feed our own people as well as much of the world. With that comes a great responsibility to make sure that we’re doing it efficiently as possible, and that we share that benefit.”

Alfalfa and other hay crops use about two-thirds of the water diverted in Utah. As the state explores ways to solve its growing water crisis, many are looking to agricultural producers to further reduce their water use so more can be available to sustain residential growth and new industries and replenish Utah’s rivers and lakes.

The vast majority of Utah’s irrigated croplands, about 1 million acres, grow alfalfa because that’s what grows best in this environment, they say.

“If we could grow orchards we would grow orchards,” Bailey says. “It would be much more lucrative.”

According to U.S. census data, Utah exported $126 million worth of alfalfa in 2020, or 29% of the state’s total harvest by value. But this framing distorts the true export picture, according to Bailey. The value of a ton of exported product is far greater than a ton that remains in Utah because of the increased shipping and processing costs.

He estimated the share of Utah-grown hay sent overseas to be around 6 to 8%, or 120,000 to 160,000 tons last year when the total harvest was just over 2 million tons.

At his monthly press conference last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox defended alfalfa exports as crucial to the survival of rural Utah.

“That’s the piece that keeps their farms alive, that’s the thing that actually allows them to do all the other things that they’re doing on those farms as well,” said Cox, who hails from a hay-growing family in Sanpete County. “It’s really important that our farmers are able to make money to keep agriculture alive.”

U.S. food and crop exports reached an all-time peak last year, worth $196 billion, an 11% increase over the prior year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hay’s share was a record $1.6 billion, totaling 4.4 million tons, nearly all of it.

Economic 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 since they help correct the nation’s chronic trade imbalances, particularly with Pacific Rim countries, and bring revenue to America’s rural areas.

But some observers are uneasy with exporting water-intensive crops from the arid American West, where water is becoming increasingly scarce because of climate change. Is it a good idea 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’s part of our origin story, this bedrock idea of family farms, even though most of them are corporate,” Ewert says. “But the fundamental flaw is alfalfa is a water-thirsty crop, and we live in a desert, so it’s a mismatch from the beginning.”

While alfalfa might make economic sense to grow in Utah, its ecological footprint is a problem in today’s world.

“Maybe that wasn’t such a worry when we had a smaller population and a climate that wasn’t drying and a lake that wasn’t disappearing. But today, those are the realities,” Ewert says. “It’s just an anachronism continuing to promote something that was never designed for this environment.”

Because of upstream diversions, largely to feed agriculture, Utah’s saline terminal lakes don’t receive enough inflow to ensure their survival as functional ecosystems. Great Salt Lake is severely depleted and facing ecological collapse and Sevier Lake no longer exists as a lake.

The federal government subsidized Western water development in part to support agricultural production in an arid region dependent on irrigation. Shipping alfalfa overseas defeats the purpose of this massive public investment in infrastructure, since exported hay is not available to feed the West’s livestock and dairy industries, some critics say.

“Exporting water in the form of hay from an arid environment to someplace else just doesn’t make any sense, except, apparently, economically,” Ewert says. “It’s not sustainable. It just doesn’t fit 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 should not ship their products overseas.

“It’s so simplistic, it’s wrong,” Sumner says. “You produce what you’re really good at and you ship it to whoever wants to pay the most. That’s what’s good for the local economy. It really is and if you said, ‘We won’t let the hay leave,’ that will hurt your local economy, not help it. That is closest to a theorem as you get in economics.”

Almost free to ship

Farmers in Utah and Idaho grow the world’s best alfalfa and they do it efficiently, according to Sumner. Exporting surplus hay to countries that need to produce protein for their people makes perfect sense, he says. Plus shipping alfalfa across an ocean turns out to be inexpensive thanks to the U.S.’s significant trade deficits with China and Korea.

Accordingly, ships often leave California ports empty after disgorging containers full of electronics and appliances, so there is plenty of excess room on these outbound vessels for alfalfa and other West-grown agricultural commodities, according to Sumner.

“The boats are almost free going the other direction,” he says. “The trucking from Utah to the port is more expensive than the 6,000 miles floating on a boat. There’s nothing more efficient. You’ve got six people working on a boat that’s got umpteen thousand container loads, rather than one guy pulling one or two. And approximately no energy per container.”

Years ago, Tom Bailey figured out how to work this situation to his advantage, building trade relationships with dairy producers in Asian nations whose geography does not lend itself to growing the protein-rich alfalfa dairies want.

He started out in 1996 compressing his own alfalfa, grown on 1,000 acres the family owns around Ephraim, into cubes to ship to Japan. Soon other growers were selling alfalfa to Bailey Farms, whose network has since expanded to 600 producers, including many in Idaho and some in Nevada and Wyoming.

Bailey Farms has since acquired 3,700 acres it irrigates in Box Elder County. Today the firm processes up to 150,000 tons a year at three plants situated in Utah’s biggest alfalfa-growing regions: Ephraim, Tremonton and Sugarville. Collectively the plants employ about 60.

At a rate of 20 to 25 tons an hour, the machinery compresses the dried plant into sleeves measuring 4 by 3 by 3 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 Long Beach and then put on ships headed across the Pacific.

The elder Bailey is away on a church mission so he was not available for an interview. But Keith made himself available to give journalists from The Salt Lake Tribune a look into his family’s business 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?” said Bailey, a father of four girls with a side gig in the winter as a pro snowmobile racer. “By and large, Utah is supporting China’s economy by our purchasing habits. So we are encouraging China to support Utah’s economy or bringing Utah dollars back from China into Utah.”

Utah growers produce way more alfalfa than local dairies can use, so they have no choice but to sell it to California and overseas dairies. In turn, Utah imports water-intensive crops that its farms can’t grow.

“Do you think Utah can kill all the alfalfa and produce enough fruit and vegetables to sustain our state? Not a chance,” Bailey says. “This is why I feel like this is so dangerous a narrative for us to be pursuing.”

Some of the best in the world

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's alfalfa is renowned for its high quality, though the state uses more water on alfalfa than on anything else.

Alfalfa is categorized into three grades — supreme, premium and A grade — according to its nutritional content. With their cool nights and reliable irrigation, Utah and Idaho are famed for their supreme-grade alfalfa. Asia dairies mix this imported product with the lower grade alfalfa grown domestically so what they feed their cows meets nutritional standards.

According to Sumner, it makes sense for the U.S. to export its best hay, which comes entirely from Western states.

“Even though the shipping costs aren’t that high, you’re not going to ship it that far unless it’s the best stuff,” Sumner says. “You don’t want to load a whole bunch of transportation costs onto a lousy bale of hay.”

He says Western growers have focused more on increasing the quality of their alfalfa rather than the yield volumes.

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

Utah’s dry climates are actually ideal for alfalfa because the harvest must cure in the field for five to seven days after it is cut. Curing times increase in the moister climates and if the cut alfalfa is rained on it will likely spoil.

“Arizona produces a lot of alfalfa hay. It doesn’t produce a lot of high-quality alfalfa hay because it gets so hot. When it’s hot, alfalfa grows fast, and it takes all of those nutrients into growing instead of keeping them in the plant,” Bailey says. “High-quality alfalfa hay grows best when you have a cooler season, especially cooler nights, warmer days. Because of our mountain valleys, we grow a high-quality alfalfa, but it still gives it the ability to dry down. There’s not a lot of regions that do this.”

Midwestern farmers also grow a lot alfalfa, but their crops are lower quality and cannot endure shipping long distances without spoiling.

In Utah, alfalfa matures in about 25 to 35 days and a farmer can gather up to four harvests a year from the same field. If growers run out of water to irrigate in a dry year, their crop won’t produce alfalfa, but the plants will likely survive if they can receive water the next year.

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

“The hay that we grow here is not just any alfalfa hay,” he said. “It’s more of a specialty crop that can be grown here more efficiently than in other places.”