According Mary W. M. Hargreaves, Dry farming is not to be confused with rainfed agriculture. Rainfed 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 has a very long history of use. Particularly in the Mediterranean region, crops such as olives and grapes have been dry farmed for thousands of years. Even today, vast swaths of Spain (e.g. Rioja and Andalucia), Greece, France, and Italy dry farm these crops, and in some regions of Europe it is illegal to irrigate wine grapes during the growing season, under the contention that the water will dilute the quality of the grapes.
Other definitions of Dry farming
According to Wikipedia, Dryland farming and dry farming encompass specific agricultural techniques for the non-irrigated cultivation of crops. Dryland farming is associated with drylands, areas characterized by a cool wet season followed by a warm dry season.
Tastevacations define Dry farming as an agricultural technique that was developed in order to grow crops without using an irrigation system. This technique has been used in the Mediterranean for crops such as grapes and olives for thousands of years.
Britannica states that Dry farming, also called Dryland Farming, is the cultivation of crops without irrigation in regions of limited moisture, typically less than 20 inches (50 centimetres) of precipitation annually.
The merriam-webster dictionary also defines Dry farming as farming on non-irrigated land with little rainfall that relies on moisture-conserving tillage and drought-resistant crops.
History of Dry Farming
Mary W. M. Hargreaves gives a historic insight into dry farming in her work, Agriculture in the Great Plains, 1876-1936: A Symposium || The Dry-Farming Movement in Retrospect. As first published, in a journal, which Campbell established under the titIe, The Western Soil Culture, the program called for deep, fall plowing, subsurface packing, light seeding, and frequent surface cultivation.
Campbell accepted Jethro Tull’s emphasis upon seeding small grain in rows spaced so that inter-row cultivation was possible throughout the early part of the growing season. He did not then recommend summer fallowing; but in 1898 he found crop yields so improved on Selds which had been cultivated through a season as fallow that he adopted this procedure, carefully delineating it as “summer culture” or “summer tillage” to stress that the land while uncropped must be cultivated.
His views as promulgated during the period down to about 1907 were very specific, but he subsequently modified them somewhat under criticism. He advised against overdeep plowing, recommending that it be four or five inches unless a sub-surface packer and six or seven inches followed the plow if the packer was used and he strongly advised its use. In advocating frequent cultivation, to be repeated whenever spring rains were so heavy as to pack the surface, he warned that he was not advocating a dust blanket. The recommended mulch was to be composed of soil lumps ranging in size from a pinhead to a waInut.
In his Soil Culture Manual of 1907 he expressed indifference as to whether plowing was done ill the spring or fall, so long as the soil was in a proper condition of moisture. Two years later he observed that “the plan of cropping every other year was not an essential of the system and was resorted to only incidentally.” However, he remained consistently adamant in his stress upon the importance of a subsoil with a loose surface mulch. Campbell devoted little attention to the choice of plant varieties especially suited to semiarid regions or to the evolution of a program of crop rotation.
He regarded it as possible under his methods to raise not only the common crops such as wheat, corn, and alfalfa, but also trees, shrubs, and garden vegetables. In the 1907 edition of his Manual he acknowledged the value of efforts to try new crops and varieties for drought resistance; “But,” he continued, “it will not do to place great dependence on the finding of pIants that will grow in the deserts with-out application of special methods of cultivation.” Although he early expressed the desirability of diversification as late as 1914 he opposed; the coalescent principle of crop rotation, other than the possibility of a three-year cycle of summer fallow, wheat, and corn.
Campbell had a scientific explanation for the methodology he pro-pounded. He believed that moisture moved by capillarity from one soil particle to another, like oil in a lamp wick and that packing the sub-soil facilitated that movement. If the moisture was not to evaporate at the surface, the chain of connection must be broken by mulching. He maintained that with such procedures the soil could serve as a reservoir, storing moisture accumulated during fallow years and during seasonal precipitation. The requisite was that the mulch must be maintained constantly, that cultivation must be performed speedily after any rainfall.
He applauded use of the new disc harrow, which permitted rapid surface cultivation with an economy of power; but the implement he favored was a cultivator, not a plow. It consisted of a series of discs, smaller in diameter and more numerous on the frame than the lister-disc developed on the central plains. For light soils he advised use of the more traditional tooth-harrow. Campbell also added a connotation to the phrase “dry-farming” which carried it beyond technology to a promotional propaganda for agricultural development of the semiarid regions.
He offered assurance not only that his procedures could overcome climatic handicaps but that they promised a control of the environment which could not be attained in more humid areas, where, he argued, soils were subject to the drowning and leaching effects of an overabundant precipitation. “I believe of a truth,” he announced in 1909, “that this region which is just now coming into its own is destined to be the last and best grain garden of the world.” This was the message which invited settlers by the hundreds of thousands onto the Great Plains during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Campbell was a publicist, and by the turn of the century his efforts were being promoted by business interests, particularly the railway companies, concerned with settlement of the region. Between 1903 and 1907 several nationally articulated periodicals carried accounts of his methods.l2 In the latter year this developmental activity led to organization of the Dry Farming Congress as an institution.
GardeningKnowHow states that well before the use of irrigation systems, arid cultures coaxed out a cornucopia of crops using dry farming techniques. Dry farming crops is not a technique to maximize production, so its use has faded over the centuries but is now enjoying a resurgence due to the benefits of dry farming. Crops grown in dryland farming regions are cultivated without the use of supplemental irrigation during the dry season. Simply put, dry farming crops is a method of producing crops during the dry season by using the moisture stored in the soil from the previous rainy season. Dry farming techniques have been used for centuries in arid regions such as the Mediterranean, parts of Africa, Arabic countries, and more recently in southern California. Dry farming crops are a sustainable method of crop production by using soil tillage to work the soil which, in turn, brings up water.
The soil is then compacted to seal the moisture in. Dry Farming Benefits Given the description of dryland farming, the primary benefit is obvious – the ability to grow crops in arid regions without supplemental irrigation. In this day and age of climate change, the water supply is becoming increasingly precarious. This means that farmers (and many gardeners) are looking for new, or rather old, methods of producing crops. Dryland farming might just be the solution. 13 DIY Projects That’ll Bring Your Garden Indoors for the Holidays and Help Feed the World Dry farming benefits don’t stop there though. While these techniques do not produce the largest yields, they work with nature with little to no supplemental irrigation or fertilizer.
This means that production costs are lower than traditional farming techniques and more sustainable. Some of the finest and most expensive wines and oils in the world are produced using dry farming techniques. Grains grown in the Pacific Northwest region of the Palouse have long been farmed using dryland farming. At one point, a variety of crops were produced using dryland farming methods. As mentioned, there is a renewed interest in dry farming crops. Research is being done on (and some farmers are already utilizing) dry farming of dry beans, melons, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes.
The hallmark of dry farming is to store annual rainfall in the soil for later use. To do this, choose crops suited for arid to drought conditions and those that are early maturing and dwarf or mini cultivars. Amend the soil with plenty of aged organic matter twice a year and double dig the soil to loosen and aerate it in the fall. Cultivate the soil lightly after every rain even to prevent crusting. Space plants farther apart than normal and, when needed, thin plants when they are an inch or two (2.5-5 cm.) tall. Weed and mulch around plants to retain moisture, repel weeds, and keep roots cool. Dry farming does not mean using no water.
If water is needed, use rain captured from rain gutters if possible. Water deeply and infrequently using drip irrigation or a soaker hose. Dust or dirt mulch to disrupt the soil drying process. This means to cultivate the soil down two to three inches (5 to 7.6 cm.) or so, which will prevent moisture from being lost via evaporation. Dust mulch after rain or watering when the soil is moist. After harvest, leave the remains of the harvested crop (stubble mulch) or plant a living green manure. Stubble mulch keeps the soil from drying due to wind and sun. Only stubble mulch if you do not plan to plant a crop from the same member of the stubble crop family lest disease is promoted.
Lastly, some farmers clear fallow which is a method for storing rainwater. This means that no crop is planted for a year. All that remains is stubble mulch. In many regions, clear or summer fallowing is done every other year and can capture up to 70 percent of rainfall.
Excerpts from publications on Dry Farming
Dryland Farming B.A. Stewart, in Reference Module in Food Science, 2016
Dryland farming is agriculture dependent upon the vagaries of weather, especially precipitation. In its broadest aspects, dryland farming is concerned with all phases of land use under semiarid conditions. Not only how to farm but how much to farm and whether to farm must be taken into consideration. Above all else, dryland farming must emphasize the capture and efficient use of precipitation.
Rainfed farming and dryland farming are often used interchangeably, but this is a serious error. They both exclude irrigation, but beyond that, they can differ significantly. Dryland farming is a special case of rainfed agriculture practiced in arid and semiarid regions in which annual precipitation is about 20–35% of potential evapotranspiration. Conditions of moderate-to-severe moisture stress occur during a substantial part of the year, greatly limiting yield potential, and in which farming emphasizes water conservation in all practices throughout the year.
Rainfed systems, although they include dryland systems, can also include systems which emphasize disposal of excess water, maximum crop yields, and high inputs of fertilizer. There are three components of a successful dryland farming system: (1) retaining the precipitation on the land, (2) reducing evaporation from the soil surface to increase the portion of evapotranspiration used for transpiration, and (3) utilizing crops that have drought tolerance and that fit the precipitation patterns. Although these components have been known for centuries, new technologies continue to be developed that increase crop production in water-short areas.
Gary A. Peterson, in Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, 2018
Dryland farming is frequently defined as crop production in areas with less than 500 mm of annual precipitation, but this definition omits a critical component of the equation, evaporation potential. Operatively, dryland farming is practiced where annual potential water evaporation exceeds annual precipitation. The example for the Central Great Plains of the United States in Fig. 1 illustrates this. Note that the deficit between precipitation and potential evaporation is large and is at its peak in the middle of the summer crop growing season. As the water deficit increases (i.e., the difference between annual precipitation and potential evaporation becomes more negative), the difficulty of producing crops increases proportionally.
Worldwide dryland farming areas are characterized by deficits between precipitation and potential evaporation, but differ in the size of the deficit and the time of the year it occurs. For example, in Morocco in northwestern Africa the deficits are so large in the summer that no dryland crop production can occur. Overall dryland farming productivity is inversely related to the size of the deficit between annual precipitation and annual potential evaporation. A large deficit indicates more plant stress and lower yields.
How Dry Farming Works
According to AgWaterStewards, the production of some of the finest wines and olive oils in the world is accomplished with dry-farmed fruit. The famous California wines that won the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting were all dry farmed. Today, California has dry-farmed vineyards all up and down the coast, 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. There are a few old dry-farmed vineyards remaining in Lodi and the Sierra foothills, particularly Amador County. In addition to wine grapes and olives, 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.
Dry farming is not a yield maximization strategy; rather it allows nature to dictate the true sustainability of agricultural production in a region. David Little, a Sonoma vegetable grower who says he at times gets only a quarter of the yield of his competitors, describes dry farming as “a soil tillage technique, the art of working the soil; starting as early as possible when there is a lot of moisture in the soil, working the ground, creating a sponge-like environment so that the water comes from down below, up into the sponge. You press it down with a roller or some other implement to seal the top…so the water can’t evaporate and escape out.”
Dry farming is more than just the absence of irrigation. In the following example of wine grapes, there are five key elements:
- The soil must be appropriate, with good water holding characteristics.
- Grape vines must be spaced sufficiently to allow the plant to obtain the moisture it needs from the soil. In practice, we have found that this varies from 32 to 120 square feet, which may in fact depend on the soil, rainfall, and altitude.
- Vines must be planted on a rootstock that will seek the moisture down in the soil. Most dry farmers agree that St. George rootstock is best at this, although Frank Leeds reports that he has successfully dry farmed grapes on SO-4 and 110-R rootstocks. Vines are often given some water during the first season or two.
- Vineyards tend to be cultivated as soon as the rains stop, in order to trap the moisture in the soil by creating a “dust mulch.” The word “dust” is really a misnomer, as true dust is undesirable and would just blow away. The goal is a 3-4” blanket of dry, even soil that prevents the moisture from escaping. Some growers emphasize the importance of disking the entire vineyard in a one-week window after the rains stop, which might limit the scale of any one enterprise. Others have achieved success mowing a permanent cover that was cultivated about every 6 years. One grower cultivates alternate rows for 3 years and then switches the cultivated and permanent cover rows, subsoiling the rows that were in permanent cover.
- Vineyards are usually cultivated during the season in order to bring moisture to the plants, or rather to allow the plants to absorb the moisture and nutrients from the soil. Most farmers utilize a harrow. Though now controversial among soil scientists, this is almost a religious belief among dry farmers, and beyond the initial working of the vineyard to trap the moisture, the number of cultivations can range from once a season to once a week depending on the age of the vines, the variety, and the soil.
Optimizing Rainwater Utilization in Dry Farming
Improving water-use efficiency in dryland farming requires measures to increase infiltration (avoiding runoff losses) and to prevent water losses. Such measures include the following:
1. Maintaining a well-structured, aggregated, and porous topsoil, so as to prevent surface crusting and runoff;
2. Keeping a mulch cover (consisting of plant residues) on the soil surface to shield the soil surface against the aggregate-slaking impact of striking raindrops;
3. Terracing and contouring cultivation to facilitate absorption of rainfall and prevention of runoff;
4. Avoiding mechanical compaction so as to enhance infiltration and prevent runoff losses;
5. Fallowing the land periodically to collect rainwater and store it in the soil for the subsequent use of a crop;
6. Minimizing surface evaporation of soil moisture by judicious tillage and especially by means of maintaining a diffusion barrier over the surface; e.g., a straw mulch;
7. Eradicating transpiring weeds to prevent losses of moisture from deeper layers of the soil;
8. Enhancing rainwater supply by means of water-harvesting; i.e., inducing and collecting runoff from adjacent slopes and directing it to planted plots;
9. Planting and fertilizing suitable (drought resistant, high yield potential) crops at optimal timing to ensure germination and establishment and to utilize seasonal rains; and
10. Establishing vegetated shelter belts or mechanical barriers (perpendicular to prevailing wind direction) to reduce wind speed and thereby lower potential evaporation.
Challenges faced in Dry Farming
Because dry farming in California used to be a widespread practice, we know that its expansion is feasible. When planting a new vineyard or orchard in an area with sufficient rainfall, it is always an option. However, in the case of permanent crops, there are a number of obstacles to converting back, as described below.
- In many cases, vineyards or orchards are planted too close together to simply stop irrigating them. Dry-farmed vineyards require a minimum of 50 square feet spacing for the vines, and probably more on hillsides. Wider spacing of plants is required on almost all crops grown this way.
- Vineyards planted on riparian rootstock and shallowly irrigated with drip systems for years may have such shallow root systems that it would be difficult or impossible to convert. However, Frank Leeds of Frog’s Leap Winery says he has done just that in several cases in Napa.
- Yield loss in dry farmed crops can be significant. Dry farmed red grapes farmed in the traditional manner with 9’x9’ or 10’x10’ spacing may yield as little as 1-3 tons per acre, although this is often on hillsides with shallow soils. However, in the Napa Valley, Frank Leeds says that he has to thin his more intensively dry farmed grapes back to 4 tons per acre, a normal yield for high-end wine. A number of growers report that dry-farmed white wine grapes planted in river bottomland produce very vigorous vines and high yields.
- Quality of product and market conditions may not allow an economic return to the lower yields in many cases. In Napa, if a dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard gets $4,000 a ton, which is a very different outcome than the less than $500 a ton that the grapes might typically fetch in Lodi. While dry farming is physically feasible in Lodi, the market forces may not make it worthwhile unless dry-farmed Lodi grapes commanded a much higher price.
- The same economic problem exists with dry-farmed fruit. Although such fruit is sweeter, denser, and stores better, it is also smaller, and the commercial fruit industry has spent many decades developing standards for large, blemish-free fruit that depend on significant application of chemicals, fertilizers, and water. Supermarkets demand large fruit because they sell it by the pound and they want to force the customer to buy as much as possible. It would take a significant marketing effort to create a price premium for dry-farmed fruit that could balance out the yield loss.
- Dry-farmed orchards and vineyards come into production more slowly. It may take as long as five years for a dry-farmed vineyard to start producing.
- Farming on hillsides always presents the problem of soil erosion. Dry farming techniques usually involve a significant amount of cultivation, often in the spring when erosion could be exacerbated. The repeated cultivation used in most dry farmed vineyards will cause nitrous oxide to be emitted if chemical fertilizers are used. Nitrous oxide is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The use of compost and other organic fertilizers appears to reduce this problem.
- Finally, many agricultural areas of California are home to desert conditions with insufficient rainfall to pursue dry farming techniques. This is particularly true of the southern San Joaquin Valley. A place like Bakersfield averages only 6” of rain a year.
While dry farming is not for every grower or every region of California, it is a promising system of crop management that offers greater crop security in times of uncertain water supply and can offer a higher-quality product.
Various Applications of Dry Farming
In addition to grapes, we have found that tomatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes, winter squash, olives, garbanzos, apricots, apples, various grains, and potatoes are all crops that are successfully dry farmed in California. For example, apples were traditionally dry farmed in western Sonoma County. While the fruit size was smaller, the yields were good and most of the fruit went for processing where size is unimportant. There are probably many more such examples. For further reading, see these case studies.
There are a variety of traditional vineyards and orchards along the California coast and in the Sierra foothills that have never been irrigated. “Old vine zinfandel” often refers to a dry-farmed vineyard that may be more than 75 years old. For example, Benito Dusi has dry farmed in Paso Robles since 1925, with his Zinfandel mostly going to Ridge Vineyards. Bogle Zinfandel uses old-vine dry-farmed fruit from Lodi and Amador County. Fetzer and their Bonterra label use some dry-farmed fruit in Mendocino.
Dr. Steve Gliessman (Condor’s Hope)—and a professor of agroecology at UC Santa Cruz—dry farms his vines and olives in Santa Barbara. The Bucklin Old Hill vineyard in Sonoma Valley is more than 125 years old, with the fruit going to Ravenswood and Bucklin wines. Kunde in the same area has a “century” vineyard.
A number of farmers in the premium wine-growing regions have developed and expanded the practice, including Frog’s Leap and Turley in Napa. Many practitioners of dry farming maintain that all premium vineyards in the coastal valleys could be converted back to the practice.
Sufficient rainfall is required, probably in the range of 15-20” per year, although Steve Gliessman believes that it can be done with as little as 10-12”. Even this smaller amount would exclude most of the southern San Joaquin Valley between Fresno (11”) and Bakersfield (6”).
Dry-farming requires not only sufficient rainfall but also soils capable of retaining moisture, so sandy soils or heavily fractured soils are inappropriate, many of the same considerations as with siting a pond.
Additional Benefits of Dry farming
- The “dust mulch” (i.e., the dry layer of soil that is cultivated to trap moisture) is dry enough that few weeds grow, so herbicides are unnecessary, or, for organic farmers, little weeding is required.
- Less water used on crops will have positive impacts on water quality and in-stream flows.
- The energy used to transport and pump irrigation water is eliminated.
- Establishment and maintenance of drip irrigation systems are eliminated.
- Better tasting, more densely nutritious products.
Further Readings on Dry Farming
Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Second Edition, by Steven R. Gliessman Covers dry farming and important information about the farm water environment.
Arid Agriculture: A Handbook for the Western Farmer and Stockman, by Burt C. Buffum
This is a 1909 text about farming in an arid climate with information about dry farming and moisture conservation and management techniques. This free online version of the book (47 MB) is from The Internet Archive digital library.
Dry Farming: A System of Agriculture for Countries Under a Low Rainfall, by John A. Widtsoe
This is a 1911 text about dry farming including information on dry farming conditions, soils, root systems, soil water storage, evaporation & transpiration, crops, and cultivation implements. This free online version of the book (53 mb) is from The Internet Archive digital library.
Dry Farming: Its Principles and Practice, by William MacDonald
This is a fascinating 1909 text about dry farming including information on the history of dry farming, conservation of soil moisture, rainfall and evaporation, tillage and crops. This free online version of the book (155 MB) is from The Internet Archive digital library.
Dryland Farming: Crops and Techniques For Arid Regions, by Randy Creswell and Dr. Franklin W. Martin
A concise overview of farming in arid regions. Includes a detailed description of dry farming techniques and practices.
Incentive Programs for Agricultural Water Use Efficiency, Water Quality and Energy Stewardship/Air Quality
A 3 page list of incentive programs for agriculture water use efficiency, water quality and energy stewardship / air quality.
Taming the Tap, by Matthew E. Green
A March 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article on dry farming in California.
A Field Guide to Sustainable and Delicious Dry Farmed Wines, by Alastair Bland
A June 2011 San Francisco Weekly article.
A Return to Dry Farming, a video by Kate Wilson of Russian Riverkeeper.
Back to the Future: dry farming, by Glenn T. McGourty
A February 2010 Wines and Vines article on dry farming wine grapes, by a Mendocino County farm advisor.
CAFF held a series of irrigation efficiency and dry farming workshops from 2013-2016. Find links to the handouts, presentations, panel recordings and more.
Dry Farming in California: Saving Water, Making Great Wine
This factsheet produced by Community Alliance with Family Farmers provides an overview of the basic dry-farming techniques, costs, and benefits for California wine grape growers.
Dry Farming: Old Techniques for a Sustainable Future, by Rachel Raphael
A Summer 2010 Edible Marin and Wine Country article. Includes discussions with John Williams and David Little.
Dry Farming Wine Grapes: A Best Management Practice Guide for California Growers by Kendall Lambert
Kendall Lambert was the Water Program Coordinator at Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). This work presents in-depth information on the fundamental principles of dry-farming wine grapes in California. This work is intended as a guide to growers and to introduce techniques and the major factors influencing a dry- farming system.
Dry Farming Vines, by Terry Harrison.
Prepared for the Eco-Winegrowing Symposium in Hopland, CA on July 20, 2011. Harrison, a former grape grower in Healdsburg, CA, discusses what he learned from CAFF’s dry farming field days with Frank Leeds, John Williams, Paul Bernier, Joe Votek, and Will Bucklin.
How Dry I Am, by Alastair Bland
A May 2011 article in The Bohemian on dry farmed vineyards and more in Sonoma County.
In Napa, a new path to using less water, by Jon Bonne.
A March 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article on dry farmed grapes in Napa by the newspaper’s wine editor.
Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog
Blog maintained by Jason Haas about efforts in dry farming at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California.
Turning water into wine: to water grapevines or not—the roots of the wine industry’s next great controversy, by Alice Feiring
A June 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article on irrigating wine grapes.
Vine Stress Management for Irrigated and Dry Farmed Vineyards
Audio recording with the presentations and pictures from our 2014 workshops in Paso Robles are also currently available online as an educational resource for growers.
Case Studies on Dry Farming
This case study describes the dry-farming methods at AmByth Estate including vineyard cultivation and low till techniques. AmByth Estate is a 20-acre dry-farmed vineyard that was planted in 2004; dry farming is the only management option for the vineyard, as the wells on the property are unable support vineyard irrigation. The vineyard is also certified organic and Biodynamic.
Will Bucklin dry farms the oldest vineyard in Sonoma Valley. This case study explains Bucklin’s techniques for supporting his dry-farmed ancient vines including vineyard cultivation, compost use, and the planting of new vines. Bucklin dry farms to conserve water and protect the environment, but also to produce quality wine grapes and preserve the character of the fruit from the old vines.
Casey Hoppin dry farms melons in Knights Landing, Yolo County. He says you have to have the right soil to make it work.
Dan Lehrer dry farms apples in Sebastopol, which he started doing by accident when his drip irrigation system broke down. He reports richer, crisper apples that ripen later and store longer.
Frog’s Leap winery encompasses 250 acres of dry farmed vineyards, all of which are certified organic. The farm is run by Frank Leeds and John Williams, and has been dry farmed since 1926 when Frank’s family purchased the land. The practice of dry farming utilizes stored winter rains to supply moisture throughout the growing season. At the beginning of the season, soil is prepared to encourage infiltration — compost and cover crops are used to enrich the soil and improve its ability to store moisture. These practices encourage vines to grow deep roots, which aids in the uptake of stored water and also helps guard against pests and diseases that thrive in the top layers. More information on their practices can be found here.
Terry and Carolyn Harrison established a 6.5-acre Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in 1974. They originally installed an irrigation system, but realized within a few years that their vines consistently had excess vegetation and were over cropped due to excess water. The Harrison’s quickly adopted dry farming methods and a permanent cover crop in order to manage soil moisture, naturally balance the crop and vegetative cover of the vines, and produce quality fruit.
David Little dry farms potatoes, tomatoes, winter squash, onions, garlic, and other vegetables in Petaluma. He sells them to restaurants and at farmers markets. Potatoes have been dry farmed in Marin and Sonoma since the 1850s. Little says that he struggles with low yields (he estimates his yields at 25% of his competition) and the lack of a price premium for dry farmed crops. A recent case study was published which showcases the dry farming practices Little Organic Farm uses to produce over 20 varieties of dry-farmed potatoes.
Dry-farmed tomatoes were popularized by the Molino Creek Farm on the Santa Cruz coast at Davenport. As described on their website: “Critical to producing our best-tasting tomatoes is our method of dryland farming. We were pioneers in working out the means of growing tomatoes that are not irrigated at all. They survive by rooting themselves as deeply as possible into our rich clay soil and searching for moisture retained from the winter rains. Located on the Central Coast of California, we enjoy moderate summers in a microclimate of both sun and summer fog. With the combination of deep fertile soil and temperate weather, our tomatoes can produce the sweetest and most intense flavors.”
This video is part of the Water Stewardship video series produced by the Ecological Farming Association. Molino Creek Farming Collective manages the field’s soil moisture prior to planting to save water in raising their crops and increase flavor.
Oh! Tommy Boy and Coastal Fog dry farm 30 varieties of potatoes in Petaluma. They sell them at their farm stand, farmers’ markets, and to some stores and restaurants. The ranch has dry farmed potatoes since 1926, and their relatives have dry farmed potatoes since 1853 in the town of Bloomfield. Click here for a feature on Jim Morris and clan in Ag Alert.
Kelly Mulville, a Certified Educator with Hollistic Management International, manages the 7,600 acres of land that makes up Paicines Ranch. This case study looks at the vineyard design which allows for the integration of sheep all year round.
Paul Bernier is a dry farmed grape grower in Sonoma County. He farms around 45 acres on numerous ranches Sonoma County. This case study looks at the dry-farmed practices at his home ranch where he grows Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, including his compost use, cover cropping, and vineyard establishment.
This case study describes how Tablas Creek Vineyard has refined their system for dry-farming winegrapes since the late 1980s including vineyard development and cultivation techniques. The vineyard is certified organic and Biodynamic, using cover crops, compost, and a mixed herd of sheep and donkeys to mow the cover crops on certain vineyard blocks.
The Poor Ranch, run by John and Susan Poor in the hills above Hopland in Mendocino County, was homesteaded by the Poor family in 1888, and has expanded to over 1,000 acres. The Poors have 90 acres of wine grapes—80 are organic—including Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Carignane, and Grenache. The Poors have always dry-farmed their grapes.
Jean-Pierre Wolff dry farms 55-acres of Chardonnay vines. These vines were drip irrigated when he purchased the property, and the case study explains how he transitioned the vines from drip irrigation to dry farming methods. Wolff also uses compost, gypsum, and a keyline plow on every other row of his vineyard to increase the water holding capacity of his soils.