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.
“We just shipped six cases to Whole Foods Oakland this morning. People are starting to learn,” Power says. “When they see ‘dry-farmed Early Girls,’ they go, ‘Boom!’” he adds, raising his hands to his head in the universal gesture of a mind being blown.
How It Works
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.
Many characteristics of the tomato I tried last fall—small size, thick skin, juicy flesh— are typical not only of dry-farmed crops, but of their wild relatives. These adaptations represent ways the plant hangs onto every drop of moisture it can. Many dry-farmed crops, including Power’s potatoes, are remarkably durable post-harvest, typically outlasting their irrigated peers in the root cellar. And skipping irrigation poses other advantages to growers who can pull it off.
“There’s barely any weeds,” says Power. This amounts to a huge labor savings on a farm, especially an organic one that must avoid chemical herbicides. When you factor in the hassle and expense of irrigation, a dry farmer can only wonder why everyone isn’t doing this.
"A lot of old timers will tell you,” Power says, “that instead of ‘irrigation,’ they call it ‘irritation.’”
The drought hasn’t bothered dry-farming grape growers either. John Williams, the effusive owner and wine maker at Frog’s Leap in Napa, tells The Plate that if he didn’t watch the news he wouldn’t even know about the drought. “We were dry farming before the drought, we’re dry farming through the drought, we’ll dry farm after the drought. From a dry-farmed grapevine’s points of view, there’s been no drought. We got 21 inches of rain last year. A grape vine needs only about 12. We got all the rain we needed.”
Dry-farmed grapes are thought to produce wine with more intense flavor, thanks to the fact that the sugars develop in concert with the acids and tannins, as they would in a natural situation. The fruits are also smaller, with more concentrated flavors and higher ratio of skins to fruit.
Will Bucklin, of Old Hill Ranch tends the oldest vineyard in Sonoma County. His ancient vines haven’t been irrigated since 1885, and neither Bucklin or his thick, gnarled vines seem the least bit stressed about it. “Here we are in the worst drought on record,” he reflected, “and I think we will have the best yield ever.”
A Kind of Crop Insurance Policy
Under today’s dominant agricultural paradigm, farms are both perpetrator and victim of the water crisis. Fifity-nine percent of the state remains in a state of “severe” drought, according to the website Drought Monitor. That’s compared with 92 percent a year ago.
None of the ones I spoke with at the height of the drought had been hit in the pocketbook by it—a stark contrast to the experience of many of the state’s irrigating farmers. Nor were the dry farmers sweating the impending restrictions on groundwater that California is planning to implement in coming years.
“Dry-farming is a responsible way to farm, drought or no drought,” says Gliessman. “Its biggest impact is reducing water use in all types of years, wet or dry, so that water is available for nature, especially rivers and fish, as well as other human uses. Irrigated agriculture uses somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of all developed water. This needs to be reduced.”
It sounds like a tall order, but even the state’s poster child for agricultural water use can be dry farmed.
“There’s all this talk about watering the almonds,” Gliessman says. “When you set up almonds to receive water every few days and the roots don’t go deep, then yeah, they will die if we don’t water them. But almonds were once dry farmed in many parts of California, including San Luis Obispo County, southern Monterey County, and the Sierra foothills.”
Dry farming is not without drawbacks. The big one is that yields are usually lower. And some dry-farmed produce, like melons, must be picked ripe, which limits their ability to handle shipping.
Power’s quinoa yielded a respectable 1,300 pounds per acre that year—his first attempt at growing quinoa. And his tomatoes were remarkably durable. Soon after my visit to his New Family Farm I found myself on the Oregon coast, nursing the remnants of a tote bag full of vine-ripened California dry-farmed Early Girls.
After a week of unrefrigerated car camping, the tomatoes were a bit softer, but never came close to spoiling. And I never gave them the chance.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit news organization. Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Montana. Find him on Twitter @arilevaux.