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Incorrect water use information plagues alfalfa

Thanks to a CAFA member in the Modesto area we were alerted to a letter to the editor that appeared in the local newspaper in late October. It’s not uncommon, of course, to hear or read misinformation regarding alfalfa and other crops, especially when it comes to water use. In this case however, there was a twist that we don’t recall hearing before.

The letter printed in the Modesto Bee inferred that alfalfa and pastures were on the list of crops that receive subsidies. The letter’s tone also left us with the impression that the person who wrote it had read, or was at least familiar with the book, “Cadillac Desert,” authored by the late Marc Reisner, As mentioned in previous columns, Reisner labeled alfalfa as one of several low value high-water using crops that shouldn’t be grown in Western states. His criticism promoted a number of concerned growers and industry members to meet with him to make their case in defense of alfalfa. They came out of the meeting determined to establish a statewide association that would educate the public and provide leadership for the California alfalfa and forage industry.

Since its beginning CAFA has battled the misconception regarding alfalfa’s low value and its low water-use efficiency. The Modesto Bee limits letters to the editor to only 200 words, so we weren’t able to list all the facts that we would have liked to present. CAFA’s letter began by correcting the statement that “80 percent of the water consumed in California goes to agriculture …”

Before we gave the correct number we did some fact checking by visiting, the California Farm Water Coalition’s Web site. When we opened the “Farm Water Facts” section it asked the question: “What percentage of the state's developed water supply is used by farmers? That question has resulted in multiple answers most frequently printed in the news media. The most damaging answer to farmers is 80 percent.”

The 80 percent figure cited as “the most damaging answer” is interesting since it matched the number in the letter to the Modesto Bee. The correct answer, according to the Farm Water Coalition is that “farmers use only 43 percent of the state's developed water supply. The largest user of this water is the environment at 46 percent while homes/businesses use the remaining 11 percent.”

CAFA’s letter pointed out that alfalfa is California largest acreage crop, it’s valued at $1 billion, and it does not receive government subsidies. Being limited to a 200-word letter prevented us from detailing the many benefits alfalfa offers, such as curbing soil erosion, providing wildlife habitat for hundreds of animal species, and nitrogen fixation. The latter, of course, saves huge amounts of fossil fuel energy that would otherwise be used to produce more nitrogen fertilizer. The letter to the Bee concluded by referencing CAFA’s 24-page booklet, “Alfalfa, Wildlife and the Environment,” written by University of California and USDA-Agricultural Research Service specialists. The booklet is available at, or it can be purchased for $3 by contacting CAFA at, 36 Grande Vista, Novato, CA 94947.

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