Residents of California have been noting something disconcerting when they hit the grocery store this year: it’s a terrible year for stone fruit. Despite the fact that it’s the height of summer, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, cherries and their ilk are much more expensive than unusual, and of much poorer quality, too. What’s going on? The answer lies in the state’s extreme drought, which wreaked havoc on numerous crops this year, including stone fruit. The state’s agriculture may be undergoing some major shifts in the coming years thanks to climate change and natural shifts in rainfall levels, and it’s not the only region looking at a drier future.
That’s why some farmers are turning to dry farming, which tackles the problem head on. It utilizes minimal trapped moisture to provide farms with what they need, rather than irrigating, and, astoundingly, it actually produces amazing crops, like tomatoes packed with explosive flavor. Without irrigation, plants don’t load up with water, and the subsequent crop is anything but watered down: It tends to be smaller, but it’s flavorful, intense, and sweet, thanks to days growing in the hot California sun.
Dry farming isn’t anything new, and it wasn’t invented in California. It was widely used throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, as farmers in regions like Greece, Italy and Morocco didn’t have an extensive water supply to rely upon. They were forced to utilize practices that would help the soil retain moisture for crops like olives, and they refined dry farming techniques for their climate. The tactics used in dry farming include taking special care of the soil to help it remain fertile and retain moisture, spacing crops appropriately to reduce competition for limited water supplies, and cultivating crops suited to low-water conditions, including hardy cultivars that send down deep tap roots to access buried water supplies.
80 percent of the water used in California goes to agriculture, while residents in a growing number of cities are living with water restrictions and exhortations to cut down on water use. The state is beginning to see that the real area for resource frugality lies in the agricultural sector, which doesn’t have to use as much water as it does. Dry farming could help the state cut down radically on water usage, reducing the strain on water resources and in turn improving conditions for fish and neighboring states (and countries) fighting over the limited supply of water from the Colorado River.
However, dry farming can’t happen overnight. If farmers just stopped watering their crops, most of them would die. Crops need to be raised from the start with dry farming in mind, and when farmers are growing grapes, olives, fruit trees, and other crops that bear year after year, they need to take time with the transition. Switching over may require them to remove some plants in order to achieve the right spacing, and they’ll have to work their soil well to help it adjust from heavy irrigation (sandy soil that allows for even drainage) to dry farming (rich, loamy soil that retains moisture). As dry farming catches on and consumers get excited about the amazing crops it produces, the agricultural industry may find itself at the forefront of another farming revolution.
Photo credit: QQ Li.