Dry Farming – Can It Work for California Farmers?

July 27th, 2021

Farmers in California face groundwater pumping restrictions, to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Under these circumstances, dry farming may be part of a solution that farmers can turn to in order to help grow their crops.

But, what is dry farming, and can it actually work?

What Is Dry Farming?

Dry farming is a type of crop production that bypasses artificial irrigation and uses instead the soil's residual moisture from the rainy seasons. The land is then worked in such a way that it relies on this water during the drier months, instead of requiring artificial irrigation.

Dry farming is not new and has been used for thousands of years in Mediterranean regions, including Spain, Italy and France. For example, in some regions in Europe, it's illegal to water vineyards during the growing season as it can affect the taste of the grapes. Less water will lead to smaller grapes, but their aroma will be more intense and their skin-to-fruit ratio higher. Dry farming has also been used for crops like olives, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and even apples.

How Does Dry Farming Work?

Dry farming is not a way of maximizing the land's potential, but rather leaving nature to help dictate the course. That's why it's important to know how to work the soil and how to "seal it" so that the water that is trapped inside won't evaporate.

For dry farming to work:

  • The soil must have good water-holding characteristics.
  • Space the plants sufficiently to allow them to get as much water as they need from the soil. In the case of vines, space them depending on the soil, altitude, and rainfall.
  • Cultivate your crop as soon as the rain stops, to trap the moisture in the soil by creating a "dust mulch." That means creating 3-4 layers of dry soil that will retain the moisture inside and keep it from evaporating. Some farmers promote the disking of the entire vineyard in a one-week time frame after the rains stop, while others have been successful by mowing a permanent cover that was cultivated over a period of years.

Obstacles could affect the efficiency of dry farming, including:

  • The crops are planted too close together, which can affect their water retention.
  • Too little spacing can affect production.
  • If the soil was irrigated with a drip system for a long time, it may be difficult to convert.

Is Dry Farming Suitable for California?

The Mediterranean climate of the California coast makes it a suitable candidate for dry farming. In fact, dry farming was common practice here until the second half of the last century. The famous California wines that won the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting were dry farmed. Even today, there are numerous California dry-farmer vineyards along the coast – as well as dry farms that grow crops like olives, tomatoes, corn, watermelon, and others.

As irrigation has now become the norm in California, the difficult part may be convincing farmers that dry farming can work.

The warm and dry Mediterranean climate of the California offers an opportunity to make dry farming a sustainable here for many farmers. With the right help and resources, farmers can benefit from this type of crop production.

Do You Need Financing for California Land?

Community West Bank can fulfill the financing needs of farmers and ranchers, offering Farmer Mac loans to those who want to buy or refinance farm or ranch land or kick-start their agricultural business.

For Farmer Mac financing questions, please contact Laura Maffei to get started. Call her at (805) 692 - 4394 or (209) 679 - 9244, or send an email to LMaffei@CommunityWestBank.com.


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