Dry-Farming California’s Cropland

Refraining from irrigation encourages deep-rooted crops that can better withstand dry spells.

| December 2017/January 2018

While much of California’s cropland is chronically short on water, a drought-friendly growing strategy called “dry farming” is challenging the region’s reliance on aquifers. Old Hill Ranch, the oldest rooted vineyard in its region of California, refrains from irrigation and instead relies only on seasonal rainfall and the soil’s natural ability to retain moisture.

This seemingly counterintuitive farming strategy is creating impressive results. Dry-farmed grapes tend to be smaller and more intensely flavored than irrigated ones, making them well-suited for crafting award-winning wines. Tomatoes, apples, potatoes, and other crops produce similar results when dry-farmed.

The secret to success with dry farming comes from the roots it encourages. Without easy access to irrigated water, plant roots are forced to mine deep into the soil, sometimes more than 30 feet. While overall yields can be compromised, the technique leads to hardier plants that won’t suffer calamity when their water source suddenly disappears.

Dry farming used to be the norm throughout California, especially for wine-grape and almond production. The coastal region of the state is naturally suited to the technique, thanks to its mild weather and rainy winters. The climate ensures deep-rooted crops that withstand dry spells. In a place where 80 percent of its already-scarce water supply is used for agriculture, dry farming provides a smart alternative to irrigation.

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