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A history lesson on the alfalfa crop

May 16, 2002

Alfalfa is one of the earliest crops domesticated by man and has a long history.

Remains of alfalfa more than 6,000 years old have been found in Iran, and the oldest written reference for alfalfa is from Turkey in 1300 B.C.! Alfalfa has a long association with many ancient civilizations and continues to contribute to agriculture.

Alfalfa was likely domesticated near present-day Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus regions and other countries in Asia Minor. It was important to the early Babylonian cultures and to the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Both Aristotle and Aristophanes wrote about it. Alfalfa was reportedly brought into Greece about 500 B.C. by invading Median armies to feed their chariot warhorses. The Romans later acquired alfalfa and became known for their forage culture throughout the Mediterranean basin in the ancient world, for alfalfa was tied to military might.

In 126 B.C., the emperor of China dispatched an expedition to the Near East to collect specimens of the highly prized Persian horses, at which time alfalfa was brought to China. It contributed greatly to Chinese agriculture and is still widely grown there today.

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The Romans introduced alfalfa into Europe as early as the first century A.D. The Arab empires of the Middle Ages spread alfalfa throughout many regions of Europe and North Africa and especially Spain. In many of these cultures, alfalfa was associated with the horse; the name "alfalfa" comes from Arabic, Persian and Kashmiri words meaning "best horse fodder" and "horse power." The Spanish and Portuguese later spread alfalfa to the New World during the conquests of Mexico, Peru and Chile.

Although there is ample evidence that eastern U.S. colonists, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, grew alfalfa on a few acres, it was not widely adopted in the U.S. until its introduction into western states in the early 1850s. "Chilean clover" (alfalfa brought from Chile), was introduced during the gold rush of 1849-1850 and was instantly adapted to the warm sun and rich soils of California. Horses, beef and milk cows were

valuable and everything was animal powered! From California, alfalfa spread eastward to Nevada, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska and other states, where it rapidly took hold.

Within a few years, alfalfa was a key crop in the expanding west of the 19th century. The names Alfalfa County, Okla., Alfalfa, Wash., and Lucerne in this state are testaments to its importance in those regions. In 1900 98 percent of the alfalfa in the U.S. was grown west of the Mississippi River. Cold-tolerant introductions from Germany and plant breeding later allowed alfalfa to be adapted to the cold and wet conditions of the East. This enabled U.S. acreage to expand 15-fold to 30 million acres by 1950, mostly in the upper Midwest and eastern states.

From its humble origins as a deep-rooted, drought-resistant perennial legume growing wild on the steppes of Asia, alfalfa has spread throughout Asia, Europe, Australia, Northern Africa, North and South America. Many farmers and cultures value its high productivity, wide adaptation and life-sustaining nutritional characteristics.

>> Herman Meister is the field crops agronomy adviser at the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

>> The Cooperative Extension serves all residents of the Imperial Valley.

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