The Cost Of Making Milk In The Desert

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One day, the son of a king came to America to learn how to make milk in the desert.

"He went to California. He saw some dairy farms there, and he said, 'OK, I want one, same as that. But I want two of them,' " says Russel Wards. Wards manages tens of thousands of cows at the Al-Safi dairy in Saudi Arabia, founded in the 1970s by Prince Abdullah bin Faisal.

Wards says the prince took the plans of a sizable dairy farm in California, brought them back to Saudi Arabia and built a dairy twice the size.

At the time, oil prices were high, and Saudi Arabia was booming. But its leaders also worried about fallout from the oil embargo in 1973, when Arabic oil-producing nations temporarily stopped shipping crude to countries like the U.S. that supported Israel.

"While the rest of the world was dependent upon oil, Saudi Arabia was dependent upon food from the rest of the world," Wards says. "So they could actually be vulnerable to a food boycott."

As America looked for ways to become more fuel-independent, Saudis worked to become food-independent — building massive grain and dairy operations like this one. The building Wards is standing in holds 1,680 animals, he says.

They used oil-drilling technology to tap aquifers deep beneath the desert and distribute the water with cooling systems invented in Arizona. It gets up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and each cow uses about 30 gallons of water every day for cooling and drinking — and constantly hosing down the milking parlor.

That's 30 gallons of water a day, times 38,000 cows.

Trouble is, the aquifer that first provided the water has run dry. So the Saudi government has ordered the grain industry that was also dependent on this water to be phased out completely by 2016.

So for now, the dairies can continue. In fact, the Al-Safi dairy recently won approval to dig even deeper to a new water aquifer that's a full mile underground.

But this aquifer could also run dry in just a few decades. And that's only if the current rate of water extraction doesn't increase.

That's a lot of trouble to produce milk. Even Wards admits "it could be easier to get from somewhere else." In fact, that's what many countries in this region are starting to do.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are buying up huge tracts of land in places like Ethiopia and Sudan to grow food and produce milk. If everything goes according to plan, there will be more mega-farms in unlikely places — in countries that are often unable to provide enough food for their own people.

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