I had just weathered two straight 16-hour days of meetings at an industry conference, lined up a couple of site visits for that morning in Phoenix, and then was finally scheduled to board a flight home in the afternoon. Despite the rare pleasure of clear and warm January skies I was eager to get back. I always am.
Traffic was thin, just a handful of trucks making time in the dark, early, coffee-fueled hours. But as the first few signs of sunlight gradually emerged from over the ribbon of mountains to the east, so did the vehicular traffic. There were very few cars. By one groggy man’s count at least 80% of my roadmates were 18-wheelers.
I was witnessing the modern-day terrestrial equivalent of the Berlin Airlift. Over the course of one year in those early days of the Cold War, some 200,000 British, French, and American flights ferried over 10,000 tons of food, fuel, and supplies into a starving city isolated from the necessities.
Only these eastbound trucks were filled with things like sunglasses, golf balls, flip flops, and inflatable alligators. All the necessities freighted in direct from overseas, via the port of Long Beach, and available for purchase the next morning at the Tempe Costco. It’s the Great Law of Modern Retail. Every cartful hauled out of the store must be replenished. Preferably with goods produced as far away and as inexpensively as possible.
I pulled off for gas in Blythe, where the Colorado cuts through the fertile, silty valley and transforms the area into something of an oasis. The station attendant there was squat, bespectacled, dusty looking, and as worn as the dogeared pages of the copy of “Twilight” she held in her hand. She was halfway through a morning doughnut when I approached to pay.
“Looks like they’re already working on the hay” I remarked, pointing a couple blocks west to the alfalfa field I had passed on the off ramp, already cut and arranged into neat windrows, ready for baling.
“Yeah, broccoli and alfalfa right now” she replied, barely glancing up from her book to swipe my corporate card.
“Perfect weather for it,” I said referring to the near-70 degree morning temps, an honest 65 more than those back home.
She looked up, small bits of doughnut clinging to the left side of her mouth. “Let’s talk in July,” she said, “when it’s 115.”
Making broccoli and alfalfa in the middle of January. While my default weather app settings featured pictures of ice and snow and single-digit highs. I may as well have been reading about it in the National Geographic, that’s how foreign the concept felt to me.
Haying has quickly become one of my favorite farm activities – a close second to eating Porterhouse steaks – and, despite the fact I was running late for meetings in Phoenix, the curiosity was too great. I detoured south onto dusty backroads and not a half mile later I got my first whiff of it. An enormous pile of large square bales, at least 40 tons of it – twice what we harvested last year – freshly baled, neatly stacked next to the road, and emitting an aroma that my central nervous system quickly identified as “Summer.” Earthy, sweet, mild, and pleasing. As fragrant as any lavender field in Provence.
Apparently when you get less than four inches of rain a year you can afford to leave your hay out for a few days. There is no need to constantly monitor the weather. No need to urgently pray for the clouds to hold off for another couple hours. No sweaty, frantic effort to get it all up and into the barn before the inevitable onset of moisture.
Another half mile down the road I pulled to the shoulder, careful not to veer into the big irrigation canals ringing the hayfields. I got out, leaned against the door, and toked the soft winter air. I prefer my hayfields framed by hardwoods, and here in Blythe I was many hundreds of miles from the nearest black walnut tree. Still, there was a beauty in it. The morning-sharp ribbon delineation between mountain range and horizon reminded me of a financial chart, a line jutting in the familiar cyclical patterns that dot so many of our quintessential American landscapes and dictate so many of our quintessential American investment decisions.
The wide fields were a study in engineering, each laser-leveled to achieve the precision slopes necessary for maximum irrigation efficacy. These farmers have to wring every drop of utility out of their scarce river allocations. Agriculture on this scale is a bottom-line business, where margins are measured in mere increments, but multiplied over large numbers of acres.
I hopped the canal, walked 50 feet into the freshly cut field, pressed a handful to my nose and inhaled (not the first time I’ve done that on a business trip). Back home we get two, maybe three if we’re lucky, cuttings a year. Here in Blythe this was the first of eight, maybe nine cuttings. All while my little field 2,000 miles away sat buried in several feet of snow. And while the cattle gradually whittled through our reserves, chewing four or five bales a day out of the once reassuringly-stuffed mow.
Back on the road to Phoenix, I listened to Coldplay and pondered what I had witnessed in Blythe. I thought about how it all stands in contrast to our humble farm-to-table operation in Michigan.
I recalled reading something in an article years ago about the trade deficit with China, something so preposterous to me at the time that I filed it away in a shoebox deep in the cobwebbed reaches of my brain.
Even taken from the furthest reaches of our hayfield, our bales travel less than a thousand feet from harvest to barn to appreciative bovine. But due to the preponderance of empty shipping containers returning to offshore factories, the article said, Southern California hay farmers were now sending up to a third of their crop to Chinese dairies many thousands of miles away.
It’s a strange plot twist in the story of Modern Retail and Modern Food and their ever-longer supply chains. Thanks to all those flip flops and inflatable alligators it is cheaper to ship hay to cows in Asia than to domestic ones just a few hundred miles away.