Bales of alfalfa grown in the western United States wait to be export to China, the United States' largest foreign alfalfa buyer. Image: Flickr user Fronteras Desk

Chinese Alfalfa Farmers Making Hay as the Sun Shines on Utah


China is now the United States’ number one foreign buyer of alfalfa, with 800,000 tons shipped there in 2013 and more than 215,000 tons shipped in the first four months of 2014. It is predicted that China will require foreign alfalfa imports for at least the next fifteen years, and Western states such as Utah stand to benefit from this continuing trend. In 2012, China was the third largest export market for Utah, with total exports of goods valued at $614 million. Given the increasing demand for alfalfa, Utah’s export revenues have the potential to rise substantially.

Three years ago, Chinese entrepreneurs Zhang Renwu and Simon Wen Shao purchased an alfalfa farm near the small town of Jensen, Utah. Their farm, which is the largest Chinese-owned hay farm in the United States, has annually shipped over 22,000 tons of alfalfa to China since they purchased it. Zhang, who also owns alfalfa farms in Inner Mongolia and Beijing, China, expanded into the U.S. market after coming to the conclusion that his domestic farms would not be able to satisfy customer demand. This is largely due to the need for appropriate climatic conditions for growing alfalfa, including warm, dry weather. Such weather is in abundance in Utah, but considerably less so in northern China where frequent rain storms cause alfalfa to rot. Owing to the largely positive reception in the Jensen community, Zhang and Shao recently bought another 1,500 acre farm not too far away.

In 2012, the United States shipped $586 million of alfalfa abroad, equivalent to about 10% of the total alfalfa crop. According to Mark Anderson, President and CEO of Anderson Hay & Grain Co., “This industry has created […] not only rural jobs, but transportation jobs, plant facility jobs, processing jobs and longshoremen activity. Exports have saved a lot of agriculture in the U.S.”

Jensen is located in Utah’s 1st congressional district, which has seen a 171% increase in the amount of jobs supported by exports to Asia from 2007 to 2012, while the state as a whole has seen a 184% increase over the same time frame. For both the 1st district and the whole state of Utah, more than 40% of goods exports went to Asia in 2012.