It is not that alfalfa is evil.
As cultivated crops go, alfalfa rests fairly lightly on the land. You can get several cuttings of hay each growing season, and alfalfa can go five to 10 years between plantings. That amounts to a huge savings of fuel, reduced carbon emissions and an unusually deep root system that helps cut down on erosion.
Unlike many other crops, such as corn and wheat, alfalfa puts nitrogen into the soil, rather than taking it out. That means farmers can rotate crops and use a lot less fertilizer, reducing the chemical runoff that can be a hazard to surrounding territory and water. It grows well at high altitudes, better than almost anything else Utah farmers could produce.
Even with all that going for it, alfalfa has become a greater liability to the overall Utah economy and environment than it is worth. As a state, we are going to have to find a way to fairly wean our neighbors who grow alfalfa away from that crop.
Alfalfa, for all its benefits, sucks up way too much of the one thing Utah does not have enough of. Water.
Recent reports conclude that growing alfalfa and other kinds of hay sucks up 68% of the 5.1 million acre-feet of water diverted every year in Utah. The resulting crop, though it supports some farmers and their communities, amounts to 0.2% of the state’s annual gross domestic product. That’s about what amusement parks generate across the state.
And it’s not as if alfalfa is something Utah consumers really need. It mostly goes to feed livestock of all kinds. Almost a third of it is exported, mostly to China, taking far too much of our water with it.
As far as the nation’s and the state’s need for livestock feed, the 2.2 million tons of alfalfa Utah produced in 2021 amounted to 1.8% of the nation’s total output.
Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake is drying up before our eyes and has reached record lows. Millions of migrating birds are threatened, as well as the $1.8 billion in annual economic activity from such things as brine shrimp harvesting and mining operations.
Worse, the situation poses a serious environmental threat to the Wasatch Front. The increasingly parched lakebed will be exposed to the wind and blow generations of toxic waste that have settled there into our already overly put-upon air and lungs.
The simple fact is that agriculture - with the possible exception of some boutique products such as cherries, peaches and dairy - is just not the future of Utah. With a booming population and drought conditions that must be considered the new normal, growing crops and livestock is moving to the margins of our economy, not because of the heavy hand of government but due solely to the invisible hand of the marketplace.
One way to be honest about that would be to set the price of water, for farmers as well as industrial and domestic use, at something closer to what it is really worth. The Utah Legislature made a mistake when it recently shunted aside (”for more study”) a bill from state Sen. Dan McCay that would have ended the practice of subsidizing water costs by hiding them in property tax rates rather than charge by the amount of water used.
The Legislature has, though, made some positive moves on water policy. It is moving away from a century of a use-it-or-lose-it approach to water rights, providing ways for rights holders to sell or lease their allotments to the downstream environment without losing their claims to future years’ flow.
Lawmakers are also slowly coming to grips with the fact that, unlike domestic water supplies, a lot of the water going to agriculture is not metered or measured in any way. Farmers don’t pay for it by the gallon or the acre-foot. They buy shares in canal companies and pay for pipes and pumps, but not for water. So there is no economic incentive to use less.
Moving to meter the water used in farming, using market signals to push farmers to use less of a precious commodity, would do a lot of good. But it will also take years to implement.
A more immediate solution would be to use some of the state’s anticipated cash surplus, and remaining federal aid that was intended to get us through the COVID-19 downturn, to offer to buy water rights from farmers upstream of the Great Salt Lake.
The water diverted from the lake over the years followed the path we set for it with the economic system we chose — old water rights, cost-free irrigation, unmetered diversions.
We now can, we now must, design another system. One that holds as few alfalfa farmers as harmless as possible while protecting the lake, thus protecting the rest of us.