California residents are being told to cut 25 percent or be fined, but the agricultural industry is being asked to self regulate and report to the state. This is disturbing to some and questions are being posed about what farmers and ranchers are doing to conserve—and rightly so.
Dry farming is an ancient practice and has been implemented by some grape growers in the wine industry in Europe and the United States.
According to the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative, “Dry farming is not to be confused with rain-fed agriculture. Rain-fed agriculture refers to crop production that occurs during a rainy season. Dry farming, on the other hand, refers to crop production during a dry season, utilizing the residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season, usually in a region that receives 20” or more of annual rainfall. Dry farming works to conserve soil moisture during long dry periods primarily through a system of tillage, surface protection, and the use of drought-resistant varieties.”
Dry farming is unique and truly a sustainable method for agricultural production. It is not a yield maximization strategy; rather it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agricultural production in a region. Vegetable grower David Little in Sonoma, California reports his yield is at times a quarter of what his competitors harvest. Dry farming he says is “a soil tillage technique, the art of working the soil; starting as early as possible where there is a lot of moisture in the soil, working the ground, creating a sponge-like environment.”
Water is wicked from below the surface by sponge-like soil up to the roots of plants. Little notes to press the soil with a roller or other compacting mechanism to seal the top, so the water cannot evaporate or escape.
Dry farming is more than the absence of irrigation. The soil needs to be adaptable for holding water like those containing clay, which is typical in many Mediterranean climates.
California has been dry-farming vineyards from Mendocino in the north, Sonoma, Napa (estimated 1,000 acres), to San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara on the central and south coast. In addition, there are a few older dry-farmed vineyards remaining in Lodi and the Sierra foothills, particularly Amador County.
Wine grapes and olives are not the only crops being dry farmed, for a wide range of crops including tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, winter squash, garbanzos, apricots, apples, grains, and potatoes are at times dry farmed in California. Beans, squash, and tree fruit could become the 21st century “three sisters” in an evolving western United States agricultural landscape.
Successful dry farming requires a new paradigm for developing drought resistant agricultural varieties. Also growers and the public need to accept change similar to how predecessors in organic farming changed practices, perceptions and influenced market share in the produce world over the last twenty plus years. In the beginning there were challenges for the organic market involving acceptance of the visual quality of the produce in the absence of pesticides, the cost of the product, smaller yields, and economic consequences challenging industrial farming concerns. Local growers and small farmers, however, have been one of main benefactors of a growing demand for certified organic produce ushering in a burgeoning demand for locally grown produce and farmers’ markets. Dry farming can follow a comparable trajectory, but it’s not going to happen overnight. With an emphasis on sustainable farming and ranching methods based on water supplies a region can support naturally, dry farming is a responsible practice going forward as an important component in developing an evolving water conservation agenda for the western states now and in the future.
Also by this writer:
Smart gardening to beat water shortages
is retired and lives in Clearlake, California. She has three grown
children and one grandson and a Bachelor’s degree in Health Services
Administration from St. Mary’s College in Moraga California. On the
home front Dava enjoys time with her family, reading, gardening, cooking
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