Everyone knows that plants need water, soil, oxygen and sunlight in order to grow strong and healthy, but what happens when water is scarce?


Modern farming solutions to this problem include irrigation systems that can direct water to rows of crops in huge fields, but some farmers believe that a return to dry farming is the solution.

If you’re asking yourself “what is dry farming?” you’ll find some answers below.

What Is Involved In A Dry Farming Operation?

Dry farming is a natural technique that utilizes rainwater and water leached from the ground in dry environments. Groundwater supply is often the result of melted snow and ice in climates that experience high precipitation in the winter and dry heat in the summer.

Water from nearby watershed sources can also be used in dry farming, and some believe that the use of dry farms could solve not only food shortage challenges in small communities but also climate change concerns.

In order to maximize farming efforts in arid conditions, crops on a dry farm tend to be spaced further apart compared to the tight spacing used in commercial farming. Tilling is also minimized to avoid over-aerating soil which could lead to excess moisture escape.

Crops must be selected for these climates as not all plants will grow successfully in dry environments. Potatoes, squash, tomatoes and corn are examples of crops that tend to flourish in dry environments.

The Benefits And Challenges Of Dry Farming

One of the biggest benefits of a dry farm is that it doesn’t require a lot of water from artificial sources in order to feed crops. Water is still necessary, but when a dryland farm is set up correctly, it doesn’t need to rely on water being pumped through an irrigation system.

This has the potential to open new farmland for growing crops for food and for fabrics as in the case of hemp.

Because water is not required to be brought in through artificial irrigation, dry farming uses fewer resources and reuses existing resources like rainwater. This means that farmers rely less on limited resources in arid environments where water supplies are tight.

In particular, dry farm techniques can be very beneficial for farms in states like Washington and California where conditions sometimes call for water rationing.

One of the biggest challenges when using dry farming techniques, however, is the yield rate. Dryland farming doesn’t produce as many resources when compared to commercial farming, meaning it is not currently viable to provide food on a large scale.

Commercial farms that use irrigation methods can tightly control exactly when and where water is routed to produce bountiful crops, but dry farming has to rely more on nature as well as human conservation efforts. Even in the best of cases, dry farms tend not to be able to compete in terms of output.

Another challenge is, of course, access to water. Even when using dryland techniques in farming, water is still a vital element in crop production, but because irrigation is not used, farmers must depend on weather cycles and rainwater storage.

When a wet season ends too early or begins too late, this can go on to affect the entire growing season. Because irrigation and artificial water supply systems are not used, there is no way to correct this problem as it comes down to planning based on seasonal forecasts.

Should More Dryland Farming Techniques Be Adopted Today?

While many farmers are investigating the use of dry farming as a way to combat over-leveraging rivers, streams and other natural sources of water, a bright future for dryland techniques is going to take some time to set up.

This type of farming often requires fields to be left barren on a rotating cycle. While one field is used for planting and growing, the other is used to collect groundwater during the rainy season. The next season, the fields are reversed. As a result, there will need to be an adjustment in planning and delivery schedules.

Credit: Chris Devaraj

Planning must also be undertaken when it comes to financial returns. Dryland techniques yield fewer crops, but aside from irrigation, production costs remain the same.

This may lead to a change in the types of crops produced, ultimately meaning markets will need to adjust, processors will have to re-tool and consumers may need to rethink their expectations.

While it appears that dry farming is definitely viable for small-scale operations, more time is required to research ways in which it can be used for larger-scale production.

Current models have not found the right mix just yet, but with the aid of technology, there are sure to be solutions on the horizon.

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