A note on alfalfa export data

There’s a letter to the editor in the latest High Country News (it’s in the paper edition, can’t link yet) that repeats a California water myth that’s just flat wrong – the California Supergiant Alfalfa Water Use Export Myth.

Alfalfa alone is using more water than all the other water uses combined, and most of it is being shipped overseas for use as feed for dairy cows.

No. Just no. In all sorts of ways.

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright Joh Fleck

Palo Verde Irrigation District alfalfa, Blythe Calif., February 2015, photo copyright Joh Fleck

Let’s start with the water use. Alfalfa is a major crop in California, with 780,000 acres under irrigation in the 2012 Census of Agriculture. It does, in fact, use a lot of water, but that is just 10 percent of all irrigated acreage in California. That’s nowhere near enough irrigation to take up “more water than all the other water uses combined.” (Source: Census of Agriculture, tables 9 and 36) That’s not to say that California’s alfalfa crop isn’t big. It is very big. But California’s irrigated agricultural economy is huge, with lots of other crops also being irrigated. There is more California acreage planted in almonds than there is in alfalfa. There is more California acreage planted in grapes than there is in alfalfa. (Source: USDA NASS) The notion that alfalfa is using a majority of California’s water is absurd.

But what of the exports? I tried to do my own calculations recently and came up with about 3 percent of U.S. alfalfa. That was not bad.

“Dr. Alfalfa”, Daniel Putnam at UC Davis, ran the numbers last summer on U.S. exports of alfalfa and other hay crops:

Hay exports historically had never been a large component of US hay markets, and still aren’t.   There was a dramatic change in 2007 with increased foreign demand with the largest growth from the UAE and China.

But even with this rapid expansion, exports are still a tiny fraction of the US of hay market – we calculate that total exports of hay at about 3% of US production, and alfalfa hay at 3.5% of US production in 2014.

A lot of the exported alfalfa comes from the western United States, but still a far cry from the myth’s “most of it” – maybe 11.5 percent of all the alfalfa grown in the west, according to Putnam:

The primary recipients of US-grown alfalfa hay are still domestic dairy producers.


  1. There is another component to the nexus of water and alfalfa–milk and products made from milk. And while alfalfa itself may not be exported to any large extent, California-produced milk products are in fact exported. It is not easy to quantify the water used to produce the alfalfa used to feed the cows that produce the milk used to produce a kilo of say powdered milk; however, California does export a sizable amount of milk-derived products.

  2. David –

    That’s an excellent point, but as near as I can tell from looking at the data (I’m rapidly getting in beyond my expertise, so treat what I say with caution) U.S. dairy exports look like a small fraction of our total production:

    “The United States has not consistently been a major exporter of dairy products.” source: http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/dairy/trade.aspx

    Total U.S. dairy production in 2014 was ~ $206b (source: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/dairy-data.aspx) and total exports were just $7b (source: http://www.usdec.org/research-and-data/top-charts).

    Do you have a source for California-specific data?

  3. Maybe the California dairy industry is more positioned by geography, structure and investment–and maybe the California Dept. of Food and Ag. knows more. I know that there are several big entities that produce a lot of milk powder that they say is exported. I also know that the New Zealand dairy industry has experienced a boom from exports, especially to China. Is that sustainable given the state of the Chinese economy? We will see–but if China is successful in making a transition to a more consumption-based economy, perhaps that bet will continue to pay off.

  4. In 2013, California exported $2.408 billion of dairy products, #2 in value after the (notorious) almonds at $4.165 billion (CDFA data)–but dairy product exports were growing faster. So, per gallon of water consumed, which generates more value? They are both concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley.

  5. Please keep in mind that California has a population of 38.8 million people consuming a staggering array of goods. If you are going to start digging into exported water embedded in various products, you should also be looking at imported embedded water. Fair’s fair, after all.

  6. I think you are referring to what might be called a “net embedded water” accounting. This exchange started over the letter to HCN with its misinformation/urban legend (or maybe it’s a rural legend?) about alfalfa exports, and my comments were limited to that commodity. This “embedded water” accounting is a cousin of “carbon footprint” accounting, a notoriously complicated and uncertain exercise.

  7. Oh yes, Francis, I absolutely agree. I’m not big on the “exporting water with our alfalfa/almonds/etc” argument at all, for precisely the reason you point out – where we draw the boundaries is everything both in counting incoming and outgoing water. But if we’re going to have this argument (I don’t get to pick what people choose to argue about) we at least have to start with real data.

  8. I often feel contempt for the notions of virtual or embedded water. They are cute ideas that offer some insights, but are far more frequently taken far too seriously, distracting us from the fundamentals of what makes water policy and management effective for public safety and health, economic prosperity, and ecosystems.

    California exports a lot of high valued food and imports a lot of less expensive food. This seems good, because it improves the prosperity of rural populations and is probably less damaging to the environment than growing California’s food in-state. I suspect that on balance California is a net importer of “virtual” water, as if this has any meaning or importance.

  9. I agree with Jay. One of the key findings from Aron Wolf’s transboundary water conflict/collaboration research is that embedded water is a critical tool in rationalizing water scarcity by allowing us to reallocate water to meet human needs across a geography in which water is unevenly distributed. So if virtual water is used as a conceptual tool to constrain the movement of water, as the letter writer who triggered my rant suggested, we’re thinking about it in precisely the wrong way.

  10. Remarkable how people are willing to opine without bothering to look at the literature. All of the calculations people are guessing about have been done.

    Jay didn’t have to “suspect that on balance California is a net importer of “virtual water.” The calculation was done: The state is a net importer of water. Yes, California exports “virtual water” in lots of crops. J. Fulton and H. Cooley did the complete import/export calculations here: http://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2013/02/ca_ftprint_full_report3.pdf. And there are peer-reviewed (shorter) journal articles too: Overall, California is a net IMPORTER of virtual water, despite our significant food/crop exports.

    The state’s largest crop exports (in terms of water) is meat and dairy products: 1.3 MAF per year. Almonds account for around 1.2 MAF/yr in exported water. Alfalfa is about half of that.

    Yes, alfalfa is the single largest user of water (around 5.2 MAF/yr), but it is not larger than the other crops “combined.” Here is another Institute summary of these data — would have been easy to look up: http://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/07/CA-Ag-Water-Use.pdf

  11. I helped edit the Wikipedia article on this:

    Alfalfa uses about 18% of California irrigation water and produces 4% of California’s farm-gate revenue, most of which is used as livestock feed. In 2012, California exported 575,000 tons of alfalfa to China, for $586 million.

    Horses, based on the amount of alfalfa they eat, use about 1.9 million acre feet of water—about 7% of irrigated water in the state. There are 698,000 horses in California.

    See references here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_in_California#Agricultural

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