Submitted to: American Scientist
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: February 12, 2001
Publication Date: N/A
Technical Abstract: Alfalfa is the oldest forage crop for which we have a name, and charred seed of alfalfa have been found in archeological sites dating to 6000 BC. A Hittite tablet from about 1300 BC contains a reference to alfalfa, and about 700 years later we know that it was valued enough to be taxed by King Chosroes I. Chang Ch'ien brought alfalfa as feed for the fast Persian horses he imported into China about the end of the second century BC. Although alfalfa spread through part of the Roman empire, its use apparently waned during the Middle Ages until the Renaissance. Trials with alfalfa occurred through much of Europe, but success was mixed, in part due to low soil pH (acidity), inadequate soil drainage, and poor crop management. These same problems faced European settlers in eastern North America, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. On the other hand, alfalfa was very well adapted to the soils and conditions in the western USA and spread rapidly after its introduction into California about 1850. A breakthrough in alfalfa adaptation in the northern States occurred with selection of winterhardy alfalfa by Wendelin Grimm, a Minnesota farmer. This success sparked the interest of the US Secretary of Agriculture, who sent Niels Hansen to collect hardy alfalfa in Asia in the late 1800s. Importation of new plants into the collection and focused plant breeding efforts have resulted in a widely adapted and high value forage crop grown on about 80 million acres worldwide.