Talk to alfalfa growers these days and you hear predictions that acreage will take a big jump this fall due to the strong hay market and depressed prices for annual crops.

Last year conventional wisdom also pointed to more acreage in 2001. Instead, there are 10,000 fewer acres of alfalfa in California vs. 2000, according to the June 2001 National Agricultural Statistics Service report. Except for Oregon, a similar scenario occurred in the West. Acreage in the seven western states was up 2 percent at 4,100,000 acres. But if Oregon's 70,000-acre increase is taken out, acreage in the other six western states is unchanged.

What happened? “Many people, including myself did not anticipate the magnitude of the power shortage in California and the West and the demand for water to generate electricity,” answers Seth Hoyt of the Agricultural Statistics Service. Growers sold a significant amount of water, especially in Idaho and Washington and water from the Sacramento Valley was sold to an Irrigation District in central California, mainly for permanent crops. Last fall the outlook was for “decent returns” on cotton in 2001. It appears that less cotton acreage was converted to alfalfa in central California last fall.

With the current cotton market it could be a different story this fall. Lower hay stocks, reduced shipments into California and higher milk cow numbers helped fuel the strong market the first half of the year and, barring unforeseen developments, it should remain strong into early 2002, Hoyt says.

Don't let it happen to you

CAFA's contacts with growers and ag industry people in the Klamath Basin have a common theme. “You could be next.” The Basin's ag interests have worked hard to get their politicians to fight for irrigation water. But, they want support from other areas of California and CAFA will address the issue in an upcoming newsletter. The recent trickle of water released for irrigation is being described as too little too late.

San Francisco Chronicle outdoor writer, Tom Stienstra, summed up the problem in a July 22 article. “In the wildlife refuge, farming and wildlife habitat have been managed as a team for years,” he noted. The area has been “a flourishing habitat for some of the largest numbers of waterfowl in North America” and the No. 1 wintering habitat for bald eagles in the continental U.S.

Therefore, “one endangered species, the sucker (fish) will benefit at the expense of another, the bald eagle.” And, “one of the most flourishing wildlife habitats in the country and its farming community are going down the drain,” said Stienstra.

What stood out in his article was his 10-year old son's comments: “The farmers should be able to take some of the water, enough so their crops can survive, but not too much, so that the fish and birds can live, too. And they should use irrigation methods so most of the water won't evaporate on the hot days” Said Stienstra: “If my 10 year old can figure it out, you'd think the people in charge could, too.”