Think tank recommends shifting alfalfa to higher income crops

CAFA members and anyone who has been reading this column knows that we spend a fair amount of time working to debunk the myth that alfalfa is a water wasting, low value crop. The latest attack was an article in the Los Angeles Times that contained disturbing quotes from the president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based “think tank” founded in 1987.

The Institute describes itself as an “independent, nonpartisan think tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security. The Web site also states, “We conduct research, publish reports, recommend solutions, and work with decision makers, advocacy groups, and the public to change policy.”

In the Times article, which was printed last May, alfalfa had some company. Irrigated pasture, rice and cotton were also labeled as being low-value, high water users that should be replaced by almonds and other crops that generate more income. The rationale for beating up on all four crops was the combination of water use and low value, and the solution offered was “reorientation.” The Institute’s president recommended that the state examine water requirements per dollar of income and encourage a shift to fruits and nuts.

When it comes to generating income, however, there’s a long list of factors to consider. The information is in CAFA’s 24-page booklet, Alfalfa, Wildlife & the Environment, which has a list of benefits that shows alfalfa’s true value. There are some interesting stats to ponder. Some of those stats came to mind when we read the Times article.

With a value of at least $1 billion annually, we don’t believe that alfalfa growers need to apologize to anyone. Unless inflation has passed us by, $1 billion is real money. We can understand how easy it is to undervalue a crop by not having full knowledge of the benefits it offers. A thought that quickly came to mind on the subject is the value of nitrogen that alfalfa leaves behind, or as stated in the booklet — “free fertilizer”.

Given current nitrogen prices and the prospect of it going much higher in the not too distant future, N fixation is a significant return that doesn’t get put on the books. There are a number of other factors, of course, that strengthen alfalfa’s true value, ranging from soil conservation benefits to its contributions to the dairy industry, livestock production and other businesses.

Sustainability is a word that is often used on the Pacific Institute’s Web site. Is there a crop more sustainable than alfalfa? Anyone who takes the time to investigate alfalfa will find that it’s highly valued for sustainability and has been that way for centuries.

When it comes to water usage, an entire chapter is devoted to the subject in the Alfalfa, Wildlife & the Environment booklet. There’s a detailed analysis of water use efficiency, comparing alfalfa with other crops including corn for grain, wheat, sugar beets, rice, dry beans and almonds. Alfalfa gets high marks when measured by economic yields and food production. It’s one of the more efficient users of water due to its “production of harvestable dry matter per unit of applied water.”

The CAFA booklet is available at It should be required reading for anyone who’s planning to take potshots at California’s largest acreage crop.

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