Exporting Hay (and Water)

Via LandDesk, a report on international destinations of U.S. hay that is grown with limited U.S. water:

Pretty much every time I write about the amount of Colorado River water that is consumed to irrigate alfalfa and hay, readers respond with a comment or question about how much of the alfalfa — and therefore Colorado River water — is shipped overseas.

And then, sometimes, Teal Lehto, a.k.a. westernwatergirl, uses one of my pieces on alfalfa and water to do one of her cool and informative Instagram videos:

And that’s when the comments really start to fly, e.g.:

  • “… pretty much all of that alfalfa doesn’t stay in the United States and is grown by Saudi Arabia …”
  • “… Saudi Arabia is using most of the land and water to grow the alfalfa…”
  • “The #$% kicker is that most of the alfalfa is being sold to foreign countries like China.”

Let’s look into this a bit.

The value of U.S. hay exports totaled about $1.3 billion last year, with China the largest buyer, followed by Japan. Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

It is true that Western farms export alfalfa to foreign countries. And it’s also true that Saudi Arabia-based food giant, Almari, owns at least one farm in Arizona where it grows alfalfa that is shipped overseas to feed its massive herd of dairy cattle. While Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs cancelled some of the company’s state land leases, thereby ending groundwater pumping at those locations, the company still has other holdings in the state where it presumably continues to farm. A United Arab Emirates company and a major global hay exporter also operates farms in Arizona and California.

But there’s a big caveat here: Many farms in Arizona — and most if not all of the Saudi Arabia owned ones — irrigate with groundwater, not with water diverted from the Colorado River. While groundwater pumping ultimately has an effect on surface waters, the water these farms pump is not counted against Arizona’s Colorado River use. So shutting down these farms’ groundwater spigots is unlikely to have much bearing on the Colorado River crisis.

And, similarly, the data below show each states’ total hay exports, because the Foreign Agricultural Service does not break it down by county. So some of the exported hay from California may be grown in, for example, the Central Valley, which would not be irrigated by Colorado River water. So while this is not an accurate representation of how much Colorado River water is exported in the form of hay, it does give a general sense of things. I took a look at stats from all seven Colorado River Basin states. But I didn’t include Colorado, Wyoming, or New Mexico in the charts because their export amounts were almost zero.

These four states exported about $1 billion worth of hay — alfalfa and other varieties — in 2022. The amount dropped significantly, mostly due to a cutback from California, in 2023. California also produced far less hay that year, most likely due to water shortages. It’s still a lot of hay. But how does it compare to totals?

Sources: Foreign Agricultural Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Unfortunately, the FAS only supplies the value of the exports, not tonnage, which makes the comparison a bit squishy, it seems (since producers may fetch more or less per ton for exports). But as far as total value goes, it looks as if about 30% of the hay produced in the main exporting states of the Colorado River Basin is shipped overseas.

As you can see, hay, in general, is pretty big business in the West, with a value of more than $2.5 billion from these four states alone, about $2 billion of which is alfalfa.

And where does each state’s hay go?

Overall, most Western U.S. hay exports are China-bound. But Arizona hay is most likely to be on its way to Saudi Arabia for the aforementioned reasons. It will be interesting to see if that changes this year as Almari cuts back farming in the state

This entry was posted on Friday, April 12th, 2024 at 1:28 pm and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at www.waterpolitics.com and frontier investment markets at www.wildcatsandblacksheep.com.