Alfalfa in the desert? Really?

One of the journalist’s techniques is to try to start where you think your reader already is, with some piece of knowledge they’re already got, and then lead them to a new place. For me, that often means retracing my own path. I started years ago thinking it was crazy to grow alfalfa in the desert. Squandering water on a cow? Really?

Island Press has posted Chapter 2 of my book as a teaser – watch how I try to shift the frame, to argue that alfalfa actually makes sense. Of course the entire book is worth reading and you shouldn’t stop with one chapter and should buy copies for all your family and friends.


  1. We always hear about demand hardening within a municipality or utility, but it sounds like you’re making the same argument at the regional or basin-scale. As in, if we were to greatly reduce the acreage of flood-irrigated alfalfa, we would have a reduced capacity to adapt to regional droughts or system shortages.

    I don’t think I’ve seen anyone discuss it specifically, so you may have just coined a new term: basin-scale demand hardening.

    (Admittedly, I have purchased, but only read the first chapter of your book. Apologies if you go into great detail on this in the book!).

  2. This is a really interesting way of looking at it. I didn’t explicitly frame it that way in the book, but that would be a really interesting way of trying to extend my argument.

  3. Not buying it, John. A question was once asked whether an area of a typical residential subdivision (including lawns) uses more water than an equal area of crops. The answer was that it depended on the crop. Alfalfa is very thirsty, does anything else exceed its water requirements? Water-conserving techniques don’t seem amenable to alfalfa. Grow it where it rains, or dump vast amounts of water on it.

    It has one advantage over tree crops, in that the land can be fallowed when water is scarce and replanted quickly. Trees cannot be fallowed or they will die, and take years to be replaced to productivity.

    A different starting point is to ask whether supporting cows and recreational horses is really the best use of Southwest water. The US has plenty of beef, and horses are mostly for the wealthy. I’ll read the part of your book about alfalfa before commenting further.

  4. and there is a vast problem in talking
    just about growing alfalfa.

    by itself alfalfa is not a very good topsoil
    holding or improving crop. yes, it does add
    nitrogen to the surround soil, but it does not
    have the fine roots of grasses or many other

    as a pasture, alfalfa is a good part of the mix
    but you also want many other plants to act as
    water holding sponges.

    this is yet another good example of mono-
    cultural idiocy as practiced by too many

  5. A further thought about the subject. What this amounts to is: “Let’s waste water on an inefficient crop (thus keeping water demand up) so we can cut it back when we really need to use it for something else.”

    The alternative is to not waste water on an inefficient crop at all. Watering alfalfa cannot possibly thought of as a “water bank.” The real need is here and now, not in the future. California needs to continue to make hard decisions about how it uses water. It’s human-devoured crops are essential to the nation, and they can be irrigated much more efficiently than they have been in the past. OTOH, alfalfa is for cows and horses, its irrigation cannot be made more efficient.

    It has not been mentioned that unknown amounts of California alfalfa is currently exported to Asia, essentially the same as sending them water.

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