From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Ian James):
Much of the hay is bound for the Port of Long Beach, where it’s loaded onto ships and dispatched across the Pacific — to Japan, China and Korea, and farther away to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries.
The hay export business is booming in the western U.S., and the trend shows no signs of letting up. The amount of hay exported annually from West Coast ports has more than doubled over the past two decades, much of it grown with water from the Colorado River. Farmers in the California desert are sending an increasing share of their crop overseas.
Growers say the reasons boil down to simple economics. The market for hay in Southern California has shrunk over the years as dairies have closed or moved elsewhere, while demand for dairy products has grown exponentially in other parts of the world.
And because the U.S. imports so many manufactured products from Asia, the large numbers of shipping containers left empty in the ports make the return shipping costs to Asia extraordinarily cheap. So cheap, in fact, that farmers say it costs less to ship hay to China than to haul the same load by truck to dairies 400 miles away in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
During the past few years, companies from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have established farming operations on thousands of acres around Blythe in the Palo Verde Valley. They’re also growing hay to the south in the Imperial Valley and to the east in Arizona…
One of the newest arrivals in the Palo Verde Valley is Saudi Arabia’s Almarai Co., one of the world’s largest dairy companies, which owns 2,248 acres near Blythe through its subsidiary Fondomonte California LLC, according to the Palo Verde Irrigation District.
The company announced in January 2016 that it paid $31.8 million for 1,790 acres. Some of its fields run alongside the Colorado River.
The company grows hay for cows in its dairy in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy has set a policy of growing less alfalfa, wheat and corn to reduce pumping of groundwater from the depleted aquifers of the Arabian Peninsula.
When it bought the land near Blythe last year, the company said in a statement that the deal was part of its efforts to “secure its supply of the highest quality alfalfa” and was in line with the Saudi government’s “direction towards conserving local resources.”
The company bought nearly 10,000 acres in Vicksburg, Arizona, in 2014, and also owns about 320 acres in the Imperial Valley, where it has erected barns and a hay-pressing facility.
Another company with a growing presence is Wilmington, California-based Al Dahra ACX, Inc., which is owned by Al Dahra Agriculture Co. of the United Arab Emirates. The company leases 4,700 acres in the Palo Verde Valley, owns about 2,600 acres in the Imperial Valley and grows hay on several thousand acres in Arizona.
Al Dahra sells hay in the U.S. as well as to countries across Asia and the Middle East. The hay is largely used as feed for cows, but in the Middle East it’s also used for other livestock such as goats and camels…
Rising U.S. hay exports represent one of many threads in the interconnected web of the global food trade, and the percentage of U.S.-grown hay that’s sold abroad remains small compared with other products such as wheat, almonds, rice and wine, which are heavily exported. In the case of almonds, the state’s top agricultural export, nearly 70 percent of the crop is exported.
Less than 6 percent of the alfalfa grown across the U.S. is exported, said Daniel Putnam, an agronomist and the University of California, Davis. Domestic dairies continue to buy the most hay, and California alone has about 1.5 million dairy cows, many of them in the Central Valley.
Across seven western states, though, a larger share of the hay crop is sold internationally. Government figures compiled by Putnam and fellow researchers William Matthews and Daniel Sumner show about 15 percent of alfalfa and more than 44 percent of other types of hay produced in the West have been exported in recent years.
The share exported from Southern California farms is significantly higher than the regional average, the researchers said, because the closeness of the port makes trucking costs relatively inexpensive.
A record 4.8 million metric tons of hay were exported in 2016 from West Coast ports, valued at $1.4 billion.