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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Some Farmers Still Exporting Crops, Despite Drought

Some of Yuma County's alfalfa will go to feedlots and dairies in the region. Others will be shipped overseas to China, where the demand for hay has grown. (Laurel Morales)

Some of Yuma County’s alfalfa will go to feedlots and dairies in the region. Others will be shipped overseas to China, where the demand for hay has grown.
(Laurel Morales)

Federal officials are cutting off water to some California farms stuck in the worst drought on record. At the same time Arizona farmers are irrigating their fields with the diminishing Colorado River.

They’re using the water to grow most of the country’s winter vegetables, and even shipping some crops to China. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Laurel Morales of Fronteras Desk looks at the controversy of indirectly exporting water overseas.




Well, here in this country the drought continues in the West, although there is more rain in the forecast for California this week. But there's a big question about whether farmers should be using water to grow crops that they export to China. In Arizona, farmers are irrigating their fields using water from the Colorado River and shipping some of the produce overseas. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Laurel Morales at KJZZ's Fronteras Desk reports.

LAUREL MORALES: Colorado River water reaches David Sharp's farm in southwestern Arizona in a narrow artery called a lateral that runs along his fields. He releases just enough to soak an acre.

DAVID SHARP: You can see the water just kind of just working its way across.

MORALES: Sharp said today most farmers use a laser to level their land so the plants are irrigated evenly, and little water is wasted. He also rotates his crops to keep his soil healthy. It's methods like these made it possible for Yuma County farmers to reduce the amount of water they use by half in the last two decades.

SHARP: We in agriculture are business people first, and we have a finite resource. Be it water, or fertilizer, or fuel, any of those things, we are not going to waste any of that because if we waste it, it affects our bottom line.

MORALES: Sharp was thinking about his bottom line when he recently decided to sell his alfalfa to China, where there is huge demand.

SHARP: It really has exploded over the last three years. China wants to eat the same things we want to eat. They want cheese, eggs, milk. They don't have the feed, the protein feed, to give them that.

MORALES: But critics like University of Arizona regents professor Robert Glennon say it's not just alfalfa these farmers are shipping, they're exporting the Southwest's water supply in the middle of a crisis.

ROBERT GLENNON: Alfalfa is a water-guzzling crop.

MORALES: Glennon says farmers like Sharp are shipping more than 50 billion gallons of water overseas embedded in their crops. That's enough drinking water for half-a-million families.

GLENNON: It's fine to allow for that export, but shouldn't those farmers also be able to work out deals for the water with California cities or even with the city of Las Vegas? And I expect a city like Las Vegas would pay handsomely for a small amount of water that's currently used to grow alfalfa for export.

MORALES: Farmers argue their water consumption is necessary to produce food and other products consumers demand. At the Southwest Ag Summit held recently in Yuma, I notice a bumper sticker on a truck in the parking lot that says: No Farms No Food. Farmer Jonathan Dinsmore pointed to his cotton shirt and says no farms no clothes.

JONATHAN DINSMORE: So choose your - pick your poison here.


MORALES: Dinsmore is a fourth-generation farmer. His family grows alfalfa, lettuce and wheat. He says it's important to keep the crops moving, and right now demand overseas is hot.

DINSMORE: I would say the decision to export, pretty much for us, it weighs solely on our buyer. If we have somebody come in with a bid that's $20 more a ton, we are likely less to consider where it's going and how quickly can they get it out of the shop and how quickly can they get a check to us so we can continue to operate.

MORALES: And Dinsmore said he and other farmers are not squandering the water. The majority of growers in the region are taking advantage of new water-saving methods. But he calls it a gamble.

DINSMORE: Yearly we're facing diminishing resources, and they're saying by 2055 we're going to have nine billion people in this world, as opposed to the seven or seven and a half or so that we have now. How can we maintain that?

MORALES: That's why everyone I talk to said both farmers and cities need to work to conserve water. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Laurel Morales in Yuma, Arizona.

HOBSON: And tomorrow Laurel will take us to Las Vegas. That's a city dealing with its drought problems by recycling its waste water. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • Pablo Schornack

    what about all of the diesel fuel that gets used to move this food (& H2O) around & to the other side of the world? this story should have also at least mentioned that. At some point, we may be forced to keep valuable resources like food, water and fuel more local …or perhaps we’ll live in a world where those that can pay, will get to partake. No matter if these things are taken from your own land or backyard. Hopefully, things won’t become so apocalyptic like a mad max movie.

  • Farmer

    Water is essentially no different than any of our other natural resources. As a nation, we export natural gas, timber, coal, crude oil, etc. to foreign markets. Why? Because it gets a higher price in the global marketplace than it does locally. If it will sell for more in the global market than it will sell for here, that’s the business model Americans have accepted. Why should large energy (read coal, oil, and gas) corporations be allowed to export our natural resources for the highest profit while we tell farmers they cannot sell their products for a higher price? If we, as a nation, are truly concerned about exporting vital natural resources such as water, perhaps we should start our efforts at the end of the spigot, and determine what the best uses of that resource are. Restricting water use from agriculture so that golfers may have green fairways, suburban homes may have green lawns, pools may be filled, and cars may sparkle brightly doesn’t make sense either.

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