Exploring the Environmental Benefits of Farming Alfalfa

Swainson's Hawk

As you drive north on Highway 6, keep an eye out for Swainson’s Hawks patrolling the working organic alfalfa farms along the roadside.

Following up on last week’s blog post about the challenges climate change may pose to the region, this week we are focusing on a specific, regionally-relevant crop that has several environmental advantages, both as wildlife habitat and from a climate change perspective.  The University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources “Green Blog” recently posted, “Alfalfa benefits wildlife and the environment, in addition to its economic value.” They point out that alfalfa farms can provide several environmental benefits; specifically, they serve as a home for beneficial, pest-controlling insects and as a feeding ground for numerous species of birds.

For example, the Swainson’s Hawk – a species of conservation concern – is particularly attracted to alfalfa fields. These raptors help our farmers control rodent pests and maintain a balanced ecosystem.

When it comes to climate change, alfalfa possesses some desirable traits. It pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere and naturally converts it into organic fertilizer. Elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere – a major component of climate change – typically lead to decreased yields in most plants; not so with nitrogen-fixing crops such as alfalfa. As a perennial, long-lived plant, there is research underway to better understand the role alfalfa has in the carbon cycle and possible sequestration of that greenhouse gas. This science suggests that certain crops like alfalfa may continue to be an important crop not only from an economic standpoint, but also may help reduce the impacts of climate change. To read a scientific article about this in Environmental and Experimental Botany, click here.

This topic is especially relevant to ESLT because our easements in the Hammil and Benton Valleys, Cinnamon Ranch and Montgomery Creek Ranch, are organic alfalfa farms. These vital lands help maintain the agricultural, economic, and historic value of the Eastern Sierra. Thus, it’s critical to us that these preserved working landscapes continue to thrive and give back to the land and the people who depend on them.

Alfalfa

Our working landscapes offer more than scenic value; scientists are exploring the role alfalfa plays in maintaining healthy levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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