Some Farmers Still Exporting Crops, Despite Drought

Mar 4, 2014
Originally published on March 4, 2014 4:49 pm

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.


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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.