‘Dry farming’ sounds like an oxymoron. Farming, as most of us know it, is all about using irrigation to yield fertile, verdant swaths of crops. But a long time ago, dry farming was the simple solution when water was scarce.
Used for centuries in arid regions like parts of Africa and the Mediterranean, this water-conserving process coaxed crops without the need for supplemental water from irrigation. As climate change today threatens water supplies, farmers and gardeners alike are searching for new (and old) ways to grow plants with less water—and dry farming may offer the answer.
To learn more about dry farming, please keep reading:
What is dry farming?
Dry farming is a crop-growing technique that forgoes irrigation and instead relies on residual moisture saved in the soil from the rainy season to nourish crops. The process focuses on capturing winter rainwater in the soil before it runs to rivers and out to sea. The hope is that moisture sticks around long enough to sustain crops through the growing season and that plant roots reach deep into the soil to find trapped water.
How do you dry farm?
While there isn’t an exact recipe for how to dry farm, and what works on one site may not work on another, the key practices of the method are: maintain healthy soil by adding organic matter (compost, cover crops, etc.); start soil prep as early as possible when the soil is dry enough to work; till the soil to bring up stored water; conserve soil moisture by loosening the top few inches of soil (called a ‘dust mulch’) to avoid the soil surface from crusting and cracking (home gardeners can spread organic mulch on their soil); and lastly focus on growing drought- and heat-tolerant crops like wine grapes, potatoes, winter wheat, corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, cantaloupes, olives, and garlic.
What are the benefits of dry farming?
Dry farming is a minimalist approach to food production. There is less reliance on modern-day irrigation systems and on local water resources. Another benefit is that weeds are less of an issue because of the lack of moisture, not to mention fungal diseases and bothersome insects tend to leave dry plantings alone, too. One more interesting thing to note is that even though your soil will look dry like a sand dune and your crop will probably look half-dead when harvest time comes, some swear the flavor in produce is sweeter, denser, and more intense because it’s less diluted—less moisture in the soil translates to less water in the crop, which means a more powerful flavor. In fact, some European regions make it illegal for wine growers to irrigate grapes during the growing season under the notion that excess water dilutes the flavor.
What are the downsides of dry farming?
Two big disadvantages are the risk of crop failure and low yields. And while these outcomes can occur when growing crops using a traditional irrigation system, the dry method can have more challenges and failures—especially in a year with insufficient rainfall or improper planning. Another factor is the risk of erosion due to wind and slopes. To mitigate this, windbreaks can be installed, tilling can be reduced, and straw or other mulches can be spread on top of vulnerable soil to reduce water-gulping weeds and to keep roots cool.
Before you run out and buy some seeds or starts to experiment with dry farming, assess your area’s rainfall trends, the quality of your top soil, and the topography of your property (hilly and/or windy spots may not be great for dry farming). Best thing to do is start small and build on your successes, and then share what you learned with others.
For more on different methods of gardening, see:
- The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Lasagna Gardening’?
- The Garden Decoder: What Is ‘Hugelkultur’?
- Required Reading: The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden