What is Dry Farming?

June 12, 2019

Dry farming, also known as dryland farming, is a type of farming where crops are grown without supplemental irrigation (some often refer to dry farming as farms that don’t use municipal water, as well). Dry farming techniques have been used for years and can be implemented at both large and small scales. In dry farming, it’s very important to choose the right crops to make sure that they’ll be able to withstand periods of drought and to preserve as much moisture in the soil as possible. It takes quite a bit of forethought and planning to successfully farm in this way, but you can still grow fruits and veggies and drastically reduce your irrigation needs at the same time.

Soil Moisture

Preserving any kind of moisture in the soil is key. This means that weeds will be a huge enemy as they suck up any water in the soil and will compete with any other crops for water and sun. Because of this, the soil should be tilled regularly to remove any existing weeds and stop any weed seeds from establishing and germinating. Tilling and cultivating the soil after it rains will also slow the leaching of water. Covering the ground with some kind of organic mulch like wood chips, hay, or leaves can also help hold moisture in the soil and stop weeds from growing while also providing nutrients as it breaks down. Fast growing cover crops, like annual grasses or buckwheat or vetch, planted in between crops can also help control weeds and can be easily mowed/tilled back into the soil. You can find a whole bunch of different cover crops that will fit your site and situation if you like that option.

The type of soil will also determine how much water it can store. A soil made up of a lot of sand will drain quickly and might be more difficult to work with while a clay soil retains quite a bit of water. Loam/silt soils are in between those 2 and can work for dry farming, as well. Depending on where you’re located, you can usually find a company or organization that offers soil testing to help determine what your soil type is along with your nutrient levels and any heavy metals that might be present.

Turn Compost with a Pitchfork

When to Plant

Figuring out when the best time to plant crops is crucial in dry farming. If you plant something too late, it might not get enough moisture and could be weak and susceptible to disease. Most plants, when they are just beginning to grow in those first few weeks are going to need water so that they can grow deep roots to be able to survive the hot, dry summer months. Because fruits and vegetables can be sensitive to frost, you can either starts seeds inside and then transplant after any threat of frost has passed or wait until after the last frost to plant outside without seed starting indoors. There’s also the option of planting outside and covering plants to help protect them from frost. You do want to make sure not to wait too long into spring to plant or transplant outside though so that they can get water from spring rains and establish themselves.

Rotating crops based on the seasons can also be beneficial but takes a fair amount of planning to get right. Depending on where you are and what the weather is like, you might consider growing shallow-rooted crops in winter, fall, and spring when rain is more likely and then switching to the more drought tolerant plants for summer. On the other hand, some dry farmers choose to just plant cover crops in the summer and take that time off to plan things out.

What to Plant

Although a lot of fruits and veggies are known for needing a lot of water to grow, you can find plenty of drought tolerant or drought resistant crops to plant. It’s important to look at all seed labels and plant tags to see what kind of water requirements they have. Keep in mind that while dry farming crops will sometimes produce lower yields than a fully irrigated crop would, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If a plant produces less fruit, the ones it does produce will usually have a more intense flavor.

Plants that have more shallow root systems will be more difficult to grow on a dry farm but it’s not impossible with the right timing. Crops like lettuce and other small greens typically have shallow roots.

Tomatoes, potatoes/sweet potatoes, garlic, okra, peppers, corn, grapes, and eggplant are all good options for dry farming. You’ll want to provide a good amount of moisture to get them established and once they’ve been planted in the ground, a layer of mulch will really help retain that moisture. If you can, look for drought tolerant/resistant varieties of these plants.

Peas

Irrigation

I know, I know, this is all about dry farming, why are we talking about irrigation now? Well, if you’ve ever lived in the Pacific Northwest, you know how rainy the winters and springs are here (ok, and the fall and summers sometimes, too). So, if you have the ability to store rain, it’s only going to benefit you. Like I mentioned at the beginning, some people still consider it a dry farm if you’re not using municipal water. You can collect and store rainwater with rain barrels or cisterns and some cities and counties even have reward programs and other incentives. This stored rainwater is really helpful if you have soils that might not be the most conducive to dry farming. By collecting and using rainwater at the right times throughout the growing season, you can increase your crop yields and you’ll also be helping with storm water runoff so that it’s not ending up in nearby lakes or streams. Just make sure it’s allowed within the city/county that you’re located in.

Take Your Time

If dry farming sounds overwhelming, don’t worry, you can take your time! You don’t have to implement all of these techniques your first go around. If your soils aren’t quite up to the challenge, consider taking some time to add and till in organic matter. Your crops will thank you for it and it will be easier when it comes time to eliminate irrigation. Harvest and use rainwater if possible. If you eventually want to transition to a completely dry farm (i.e., no irrigation, no collected rainwater) or you just want to get away from paying for/using municipal water, using stored rainwater when you start off will help you transition in those first couple of years until you feel that your soil can retain the water like you need it to. And although I’ve already said it, plan plan plan. Plan out when you want to plant crops, which crops you want to grow, which cover crops you want to plant if you decide to use them, etc. If something doesn’t work out, there’s a ton of other techniques to try so don’t get too discouraged in those first couple of seasons/years!

Have you ever considered implementing dry farming techniques? Do you have a favorite drought tolerant fruit and/or veggie? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!

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