Is dry farming the next wave in a drought-plagued world? Some fruit growers in California eschew irrigation and have escaped the financial fallout experienced by fellow farmers in recent years.
When he wasn’t swearing in Spanish at his broken mechanical potato harvester, Ryan Power of New Family Farm spent the better part of his afternoon professing his commitment to “dry farming”—growing food without any irrigation. Now, he was thirsty.
We took our leave of his rainbow-colored field of dry-farmed quinoa, and walked over to a patch of tomato plants that hadn’t been watered or rained on for six months. The plants appeared roughly how one might expect the recipients of zero water outside of Sebastopol at the tail end of California’s record drought last year to look—all but dead. The only signs of life were the plump, radiant orbs dangling from the withered vine. Power carefully removed a golf ball-sized fruit. “Try one of these,” he said.
It felt heavy for its size, and a tad soft. My teeth had to press a little to puncture its chewy skin. I was about to taste the famous California dry-farmed Early Girl, and was prepared for an intense flavor experience. But I wasn’t prepared to be thrown in a vat of tomato juice. This tomato hadn’t received the memo about any water shortage.
The flavor was vivid and bright, matching the tomato’s Porsche-red hue. This wasn’t a candy-sweet Sun Gold or low-acid heirloom, but an emissary of tomato essence, a juicy little bomb that tasted like a normal tomato, but with all of the flavor dials turned up to 11.
Dry farmers don’t irrigate their crops—at least beyond the seedling stage. Beyond that generalization, there are many distinct, region-specific variations on this theme. Dry farmers in the mid-Atlantic rely on summer rains. Most of the grain in America’s breadbasket does, too.
Along the Pacific coast, dry farmers follow a Mediterranean-style model tailored to dry summers and wet winters. While this system is beloved by its West Coast practitioners, dry farming is a tiny blip in California’s $43-billion agriculture industry—less than one percent, guesses Steve Gliessman, an agroecology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That’s just an estimate, though, he says, as the people that keep track of such data “…don’t even think to ask farmers if they dry farm or not.”
But proponents of the practice believe dry farming could be the way of the future, as climate change and water use continue to drain aquifers.
The dry farmers of California don’t want a single drop of summer rain, as it would only water the weeds. Surface water is of no use to the crops, as the roots of a dry-farmed plant plunge deep into the earth, sniffing out water left months earlier by the heavy rains of winter. Along the way, according to dry-farm enthusiasts, the roots absorb terroir, adding complexity and earthiness to a crop’s flavor.
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