Dryland Farming for Water Conservation

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Dryland Farming Palouse hills, Washington, USA (Chris Deveraj)

When I first moved to the high desert of the southwest from the greenery and humidity of the northeast, I learned about dryland farming. I had to relearn everything I knew about gardening. The climate here is challenging. Spring winds blow for two months at a steady 35mph, and sometimes they reach 50mph and more. There is little moisture in spring. Imagine planting in dehydrating winds with little water! Getting plants settled in is trying.

Then there are the hot, dry and unrelenting sunny days of June while we wait for the summer rains to come late in the month. Some years they don’t come.

What is Dryland Farming?

I arrived here in 1988 and lived on a seed farm that was focused on Native American crops, such as corn, beans and squash. One of the first things I learned was that the Hopi did not plant corn in rows. They planted in groupings of at least three plants in depressions in the earth. These clusters were spaced about three feet apart. See what I mean about replacing all my gardening knowledge?

Corn planted this way is dry farmed. The depressions catch rainwater, and crops are grown only on available moisture. Even though farmers in the Four Corners region still grow this way, is dry farming something we need on a greater scale?

Water is getting scarce. Precipitation is low, and aquifers are being drained faster than they are being replenished. Is dryland farming the answer?

Trendy or Practical?

Tomatoes, grapes, apples and potatoes dry farmed in California are trendy now. They are grown this way for practical reasons, but they are in high demand with wholesalers and restaurants. The fruits are sweeter with a more concentrated flavor. They are becoming gourmet items, yet they use considerably less water.

Dry farming begins with winter snowpack and spring run-off. Farm soil needs to be prepared to capture and retain that moisture. Seeds are planted deeply to send out a root system that will reach water trapped below the surface. Rows are spaced far apart to allow the root systems to spread.

As expected, yields are lower, so more planting area is needed, but crops store better with lower moisture content. Southwest Colorado is well-known for their dry farmed beans. Grapes and olives have been grown this way in the Mediterranean region for thousands of years.

Trendy or not, dry farming is something for farmers and home gardeners to consider. It’s not appropriate everywhere – some places get ample rainfall naturally, and some soils do not retain the moisture necessary. By talking to local gardeners and farmers, I have found that in our area, this is some they will be experimenting with. At least we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s not new. We just have to look to our ancestors for answers.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.