Dry farming for a dry land

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There’s more than one way to grow a tomato. In arid, drought-stricken areas of the country, they’re using a technique called “dry farming,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “farming on nonirrigated land with little rainfall that relies on moisture-conserving tillage and drought-resistant crops.”

According to the Oklahoma Encyclopedia of History and Culture, “Dry farming originated in the nineteenth century to accelerate the production of certain crops, most notably wheat. It is most widely practiced in the Great Plains area where rainfall averages between eight to twenty inches a year.”

The technique seems to work best with tomatoes, apples, grapes, melons and potatoes. When a plant’s water intake is limited, the harvest results in produce with “a greater density of sugar and other flavor compounds,” according to a story from National Public Radio.

The drawback: yields are much smaller. In California, owners of small-yield dry-farming outfits are finding their produce is so popular, they can’t keep up with the demand. A story from the website “Cultivating a Healthy Food System”  states that “apple growers in West Sonoma County, which was once home to a booming apple industry, only get about 12 tons per acre [through dry farming], compared to 30 to 40 tons produced by large apple farms in the Central Valley [that irrigate crops regularly].”

Still, some farmers see it as a solution for areas where access to water is limited (The technique does not work in regions where there’s regular rain — like the Lehigh Valley.).

Will dry farming become more popular — or even a neccessity — in areas of drought and low rainfall? Only time will tell. For now, dry farmers are hoping to fill a niche for more flavorful produce — and save water at the same time.