California Riding Magazine • January, 2012

Letter to the Editor

I wanted to chime in to shed some light on your Hay Prices Skyrocket article (November, 2011). I think you missed the main point about rising hay prices. The key reason for the skyrocketing prices is the lack of reliable water supply to the farms. The cities have priority water delivery over farmland, and the cities in all the Western states continue to grow.  

There has been decades of urban pressure to develop farmland. There are fewer and fewer actual farmers, and drought conditions that have every water district scrambling to get the water it needs for urban and agricultural usage.  

The supply of water from the Sacramento Delta to Southern California's Metropolitan Water District (MWD) was severely curtailed several years ago due to the Delta Smelt, a three-inch-long endangered fish that was thought to be dwindling due to being unable to swim around the water pumps that ship the water around the state. The pumps were shut off and the water flowed to the sea, with the Delta Smelt presumably able to rebound. An environmental action and subsequent legal wrangling, along with years of depleted reservoirs, essentially nixed the water allotments to farms. Many farms were given only 10 percent of their water allotment, and this too late in the year to plan the plantings.  

Most of the hay sold in Southern California was grown in the Imperial Valley. Those farms are being fallowed at an alarming rate and the Colorado River water that was formerly used to irrigate them is being shipped to San Diego for use by city residents. Think of the movie Chinatown and the fate of the Owens Valley: it's being replicated right now in the Imperial Valley. It is not likely that this acreage will ever return to farmland. So, our local hay supply is not likely to rebound, ever.

The unreliability of water supplies and increase in the cost of water wreaked havoc on California farms, with water-intensive crops such as alfalfa and other forms of hay being particularly hard hit. Many farms went bankrupt, many others switched to more water-efficient crops such as vineyards or pistachios. Once trees or other long term crops are planted, the hay isn't coming back.

The gist of the matter is that hay takes a lot of water to grow, and the reliability of water supplies make it a risky crop. The primary users of alfalfa hay are the dairies, and they are under additional pressure because milk and cheese prices are down. According to this week's Ag Alert magazine, record numbers of dairies are filing for bankruptcy.  

For more information, the California Farm Bureau is a good place to start: And the Metropolitan Water District's site,, is a good source, too.

Jill Pettigrew
Fallbrook, California