California Alfalfa and Forage Association (CAFA) board member Philip Bowles and I attended a legislative dinner this spring. We spent a few hours talking to state legislators about topics ranging from water scarcity to their favorite pet.
As we settled down at the tables, everyone was asked to introduce themselves and say a bit about what they do. The farmers, lobbyists, and legislators obediently gave a brief self-introduction.
When it was time for Bowles, CAFA’s vice-chairman, to introduce himself, he compared the humble crop alfalfa to sand and gravel and described the importance of alfalfa to California.
Bowles expanded on the topic for the balance of this column. He is with Bowles Farming Company and grows alfalfa.
‘Why can’t you be like him,’ your parents used to ask after your annoying high school classmate won a prize for performing an original composition on a musical instrument they built.
Today, the guy’s the head wrangler for the shopping carts at Wally World, but the question still bugs you. Wasn’t it enough to just stay out of trouble (mostly) and stay in school?
Some crops are treated like that - at least in the public eye. A large metropolitan daily will run a feature article about a person growing organic salsify on a houseboat, or will earnestly debate the comparative terroirs evident in daikon radishes from Salinas as opposed to Paso Robles.
A crop like alfalfa, on the other hand, is just a boring, dumpy spinster sister to the glamor crops. The Queen of Forages, my eye! It’s just a low-value, water-guzzling relic of the past. Such a mundane crop should have no place in hip and modern California. Why, it’s practically an embarrassment, like the hillbilly cousin who always has to come over at Thanksgiving.
Of course, there are many humble, unglamorous businesses in our state that receive similar short shrift. They exist below most peoples’ radar, in what the public imagines as the dusty, gray corners of our economy.
Sand and gravel, for instance - or making telephone poles, or providing galvanized culverts, or running tugboats. There is no romance, no exotic connotation, no skyrocketing market story in any of these activities.
The men and women who work in those businesses are largely unknown. They and their companies are never profiled outside of some issue of Modern Culverts or Progressive Gravelman.
Yet there is something very important happening in that obscurity. The public overlooks that we would have no construction without sand and gravel, no broadband Internet without phone poles, no roads without culverts, and no container shipping without tugboats.
It is the same with alfalfa - the cornerstone of the largest dairy industry in the nation, the essential ingredient in producing healthy “grass fed” beef, and one of the mainstays of our ports’ westbound container traffic.
Has anybody ever considered how much ocean shippers would raise their rates for other commodities if the enormous volume of alfalfa disappeared?
The next time you hear someone refer to alfalfa as a ‘low-value’ crop - remind them of sand and gravel. Ask them how well our state would fare if we did not have that industry.
And remember that child prodigy now pushing carts in the parking lot.