Alfalfa farmers push back over water-use criticism during drought

LOS BANOS, Calif. (KTVU) -- There's been a lot of finger pointing during the drought, especially over how much water farmers use to grow crops like almonds and rice.

Now alfalfa farmers are being criticized, and they're pushing back.

Sixth-generation farmer Cannon Michael showed KTVU his recently harvested alfalfa field near Los Banos, a field he says he hasn't watered at all this summer.

"No water at all," he told KTVU. "It's been pretty amazing."

That's something he says most people don't realize. While most crops are harvested just once a year, alfalfa grows back after a harvest and can put out seven crops or more a year.

Of course, production falls without water.

"We didn't irrigate it at all this year, but we've been able to harvest three crops off it," explained Michael.

Without water next year, his field will likely die.

If you don't think alfalfa is important consider this: cheese, milk and ice cream all comes from dairy cows. Those cows thrive and producer higher milk yields thanks to alfalfa.

"An average field of alfalfa produces approximately 2,400 gallons of milk per acre, the equivalent of that," said alfalfa expert Dr. Dan Putnam of UC Davis.

The UC Davis agronomist says alfalfa does require about four acre feet to grow, but it's harvested almost year 'round.

Still, the drought has hurt the state's $1.4 billion alfalfa industry.

"Statewide it's been fairly devastating," Putnam told KTVU. "We're at the lowest acreage we've seen probably since the 1930's."

Not only are there fewer acres being planted, the yields are down. Farmers like Michael bristle at critics of their water use.

"This year, we plan on about a 40 percent supply. Aand even that's in a little jeopardy right now," said Michael.

Farmers point out they're using less water than ever and using it more efficiently with added drip irrigation, which can be expensive.

And they say urban residents also use most of their water outside their homes to water their lawns and gardens.

"I think that's one thing that could be a lesson that's gained from this drought is that all plants require substantial amounts of water for high production," said Putnam.

Something the farmers say you should consider, next time you go to the super market.