In California, everyone’s after whatever water they can get. Because of the low supply, the Palo Verde Irrigation District is currently three years into a 30-year fallowing contract – when farmers are paid not to plant a portion of their fields so the water can instead be sent to cities – with the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to big cities like San Diego and Los Angeles.
Fondomonte inherited a fallowing contract, so they are restricted from planting a portion of their land each year. This drives the company mad, an employee whom I will call Jim, told me. He asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from Fondomonte. Alfalfa-hungry Fondomonte would prefer to plant every inch.
. The town is home to 21,000 people – 6,000 of whom are incarcerated in one of the town’s two state prisons. “The prisons were supposed to bring economic development to the city,” Echard told me on our way back from the dam as we sped alongside one of the primary canals. “But it hasn’t done much at all.” Despite its agricultural prowess, 23% of Blythe residents live in poverty (compared with 12% nationally)
Fondomonte, on the other hand, has been a boon. “Everyone wants to be working here,” Jim told me. Not only does the company employ more than 100 locals full-time – as compared with the part-time or seasonal labor found on most farms – and with 401ks, vacation and health insurance, but they also support local farmers by purchasing their alfalfa to add to their bales and ship overseas.
“There are a lot of exporters here,” Jim said of US farmers and farm operations selling their crops to overseas markets. “They have been exporting from here for 30 or 40 years. I don’t see how this farm is any different.”
“The Saudis, they’re here buying up at a good price,” Echard explained. “They’re just the same as everyone else. They buy local. It’s a shot in the arm for the economy.”
A field of alfalfa in Blythe, California
But is it an outrage?
The thing about alfalfa is that it’s perennial; you can grow it all year and stagger the planting in the fields so that there’s nearly always a new crop of alfalfa ready to be cut as well as planted. Once it’s cut, it keeps growing, and they cut it again. A crop can last up to five years, but Fondomonte generally rips up and replants after two or three; any longer than that and the alfalfa grows more stem-heavy, and thus drops in quality.
Each day on their massive, gated farm headquarters, Fondomonte employees take samples of the alfalfa and test its quality: the higher the ratio of leaves to stems, the better the quality, and thus the better the milk the cows will produce.
“Almarai only wants the highest quality,” Jim explained. He broke open a bale with his hands as if tearing off a piece of bread. The outside of the alfalfa was brown, but just inside, was a vivid and surprising green.
Fondomonte employs some of the most hi-tech mechanisms big ag has to offer – computer programs that combine with satellite and drone imagery to delineate the soil characteristics of each speck of land, drones take videos of production in progress, and the company is currently improving their own system of intra-farm canals and electronic gates so that they can irrigate each field with the touch of a button from behind a computer screen in the office. It’s all part of their ongoing effort to maximize their efficiency and crop quality, thus their profit, thus their empire in Saudi Arabia – perhaps, eventually, here as well.
“If it’s raining,” the employee told me, the farm manager “can just farm from behind his desk”. They are entirely self-sufficient, and have expertise in constructing a hi-tech alfalfa empire having already done it in Saudi Arabia.
The storage barns at Fondomonte Farms and a PVID irrigation ditch in Blythe, California
Dan Putnam, an alfalfa expert and UC Davis professor, explained US-grown alfalfa has long been shipped overseas, long before Almarai. Alfalfa is the third largest economic product in the US, but only 4% is exported annually. In the western states, however, which are high producers close to shipping ports to major export markets like China, Saudi Arabia and Japan, about 15% is exported each year. These high-export states are also the states that happen to be grappling with drought, meaning that the most water-strapped states are shipping much of their water overseas, in the form of alfalfa.
When Almarai first began purchasing land in the western US, environmentalists, and many average citizens, were outraged. “Saudi Hay Farm in Arizona Tests State’s Supply of Groundwater,” said an NPR article in November of 2015. “Saudi Arabia is Outsourcing its Drought to California,” wrote Gizmodo.
Yet Putnam takes umbrage with the outrage over alfalfa exports. Why, he wonders, are people so much more outraged over alfalfa using water here only to be shipped overseas, what about almonds, a water intensive crop of which 70% of California’s harvest is shipped overseas. Or oranges? Or lettuce?
I suggested to him that it might have something to do with the fact that alfalfa isn’t seen as food – it’s just a plant, a mega-crop divorced, in common perception, from its value as food. But as the basic element of a larger food chain of the dairy and meat industry, alfalfa, Putnam claims, is critical.
“I have a T-shirt,” he told me. “Alfalfa: ice-cream in the making.”
Grant Chaffin, owner of Chaffin Farms (left). The baby potatoes grown at Chaffin Farms, Blythe
Putnam, along with many farmers I spoke to, urges people to consider how much water crisscrosses the globe in the current supply chain. It’s not just alfalfa, and it’s not just agriculture. People will find goods at the cheapest prices, and companies in areas with unstable resources will relocate elsewhere.
While it’s hard to then make a clear calculation of exactly how much US water is being poured into alfalfa and then shipped overseas (some evaporates, some filters back into the soil, some is deposited back into the river downstream) it’s clearly not nothing. But who knows how long it will last. “For the survival of that country,” Putnam said of Saudi Arabia, “they will look to other parts of the world.”
On our way back from the dam to the district offices, Echard drove me up along the access roads to get a panorama of the canals, and past some bright fields of alfalfa. We then drove to a part of valley where, in partnership with various environmental organizations, the Palo Verde Irrigation District had planted a large grove of trees to revive some of the habitat that once stretched so abundantly along this part of the Colorado. In August, he told me, it can be 115F (46C) outside, but under this canopy of trees, it might be 20 degrees cooler.
“Here in the middle of the desert, we’ve got a little forest,” he said, proudly. Like the river, this forest, too, is a manmade environment; man’s footprint is everywhere.
As we drove back to the office, I pointed out some nice bushy trees along the canal. “Oh, those are saltcedar,” Echard said. An invasive species from Asia that drain the water table and leave salt deposits in the soil, which destroys the other plants. “No one wants it,” he said, as he yanked the truck into gear and headed back out again amid the bright carpets of alfalfa stretching in all directions.