The Dry Farming Collaborative at Oregon State University will convene on Feb. 8 to discuss dry farming techniques and the results from trials using the method. Dry farming employs techniques like utilizing moisture stored in soil during a rainy season to produce crops during a dry season. We learn more about how dry farming is used in Western Oregon from Amy Garrett, the board president of the Dry Farming Institute, and Lucas Nebert, a research associate at OSU.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I am Geoff Norcross in for Dave Miller. What would you say to a style of farming that is more sustainable, that uses less water and energy and requires fewer herbicides and, oh by the way, grows tastier fruits and vegetables? Some farmers in Western Oregon are using a technique called dry farming. It takes advantage of the water storage capabilities of the soil to grow certain crops in certain quantities during the dry summer months without supplemental irrigation. Here to talk more about how it works are Amy Garrett, board president of the Dry Farming Institute and the founder of the Dry Farming Collaborative at Oregon State and Lucas Nebert, research associate at Oregon State University. Welcome both of you to Think Out Loud.
Lucas Nebert: Happy to be here.
Amy Garrett: Thank you.
Norcross: Amy, let’s start with you. I gave a very basic sketch of what dry farming is, but can you flesh that out for me? What is it?
Garrett: Sure. Dry farming refers to crop production during a dry season. For example, during our summers here in Western Oregon, we’re going to be utilizing the residual moisture in the soil from our rainy season that usually receives 20″ or more of annual rainfall. So the strategies for what’s going to work for dry farming will vary in different climates and soils, but the whole idea is to help grow food with less water.
Norcross: You said Western Oregon, can you not do this style of farming in Central or Eastern Oregon?
Garrett: There are people who dry farm in Eastern Oregon and even in the Southwest and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from examples of dry farming in more arid areas where there they get a quarter of the annual rainfall that we do, for example. So, yes, I think there’s a lot of the practices, strategies, techniques are going to vary, especially the crops and varieties that are going to be suitable in these different contexts. But yes, there’s a lot of inspiration that can be drawn for more arid areas.
Norcross: We’ll talk about some of those specific crops in a minute, but can you talk a little bit more about the science of the soil? What is going on under our feet that makes this type of water storage and therefore this type of farming possible?
Garrett: Deeper soils with the good water holding characteristics are going to be more suitable or supportive of dry farming. So soil depth and available water holding capacity are going to be key. And another is the water table. Some sites have a really high water table. Sometimes the water table is perched just a couple of feet below the soil surface and there are unique site specific characteristics as well.
Norcross: I was thinking about an analogy here and about this push to electric energy to get off fossil fuels. And one of the biggest hurdles in that space is how to store energy for labor use or put it into some kind of a battery. Is it fair to think of the soil as possibly some kind of water battery?
Garrett: I’ve never thought of it that way. I think of soil health and how we minimize soil disturbance and conserve soil moisture and there’s a lot of ways to do it. But that’s interesting, the battery analogy, I’ve never thought of it like that.
Norcross: Okay, Lucas Nebert, let’s bring you in. What kinds of fruits and vegetables can actually be grown through this technique of dry farming?
Nebert: Good question. Fruits and vegetables that can be grown are typically those that can root deeper and have some kind of drought tolerance either to escape the drought by producing earlier or by being able to tolerate higher temperatures with less water. So we’re talking about squash in particular, they have really deep roots. You have your zucchini, you have melons which are related and we’ve observed rooting down to four feet depth with squash. tomatoes are a famous example, particularly in California. Dry farm tomatoes are very popular and those can root very deeply. We can do corn, dry beans or another crop that we experiment with. They don’t root as much, but they can tolerate less water. And perennials in general are all dry farming themselves around us and a lot of farmers might want to water the fruit trees, but there are farmers around practicing dry farm fruit production and I know hazelnuts are a popular example of dry farming perennials.
Norcross: And on the other hand, what kind of crops just aren’t appropriate for this method?
Nebert: We’ve had very mixed success with your leafy greens, your vegetables. If you get drought-stressed lettuce, it just doesn’t taste as well. So the ones that are a little more sensitive to higher temperatures and might not root as well.
Norcross: How does dry farming make a tastier tomato?
Nebert: That’s a good question. There’s a big lore and a kind of culture around dried farm tomatoes, particularly in California and there’s been some research on it and we’ve done a little bit of investigating ourselves. The basic concept is that when the roots are seeking moisture, they are water limited and what they pull in with the moisture tends to be more minerals and more nutrients that are closely associated with the soil and they can have enhanced flavor that way. And we also measure the Brix levels—the sugar content in the fruits–and that can be higher as well. It’s just more concentrated and less watered down.
Norcross: It sounds good. Why aren’t more people doing it?
Nebert: Well, part of it is public awareness and also it’s taking a risk. Our culture is so used to the marvel of modern irrigation where we have water very easily accessible; however, like Amy said, dry farming has gone on for a long time. Indigenous people of the past have dry farmed. I think we need to reframe it and think that instead of relying on water we should be adapting our plants and our production systems to have less water. That’s a little more of a complex approach and we need to just be testing it out ourselves.
Norcross: Amy, you touched on this a little bit earlier, but this is not exactly a new idea. Can you point to some historical or maybe even prehistorical examples of dry farming being used well?
Garrett: Yes. There’s a lot of history there. We’re talking about dry farming, but I think before the rise of dams and aquifer pumping, it was just farming, it was how people were growing within the constraints of their climate and soil. As I mentioned briefly, we can draw a lot of inspiration from more arid climates where dry farming is happening, for example, the Hopi dry farmers in the Southwest.
And then we can kind of zoom out a little bit to look at our climate analogs in places in the world that have similar climates to us. We have this Mediterranean climate here with the dry summer. You can kind of zoom out on the globe and see the Mediterranean or at a similar latitude Chile in the summer in the Southern hemisphere. I think there are other examples as well, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from people that are farming without irrigation in climates like ours around the world.
Norcross: There seems to be a big push to look to Indigenous populations here in the region who have been dealing with problems like these for millennia. And I’m not just talking about farming here, I’m talking about wildfire management and the list goes on. Do you think you’re part of a trend here?
Garrett: I think that we’re just building upon that. There’s a lot of knowledge and experience and something that I don’t have a lot of experience with is the cultivation of early native plants and cultivation of first foods. There’s a long tradition and lots of history that we can learn from and then continue to innovate together collectively into the future as our climate is changing.
Norcross: Lucas, when you present this idea to farmers in this region, what kind of objections do you hear?
Nebert: That’s a very good question. Some objections are just in more disbelief that it would actually work and what we say to that is just try yourself. And other objections might have to do with having to completely change their farming style. We work mostly with smaller farmers who tend to be more capable of innovating. When you’re running a very large farm, you can’t just try something brand new all of a sudden and so that’s probably one of the bigger objections.
Norcross: Amy, what kind of interest are you seeing from the established agricultural community about this technique?
Garrett: There’s been growing interest over the years. I know that the 2015 drought was a real eye opener for a lot of farmers. Even those with water rights had irrigation restricted that year, early in the growing season, and some as early as June. So, I think a lot of new and beginning farmers also are on land without water rights or limited water availability and we are just having a more prevalent drought. A lot of farmers realize that even if they do have water rights, relying on summer water availability for irrigation, may not be consistently available from a year-to-year basis. So how do we adapt to that ahead of time versus wait until we’re in an emergency situation?
Norcross: You mentioned 2015, and there was also 2021 when we had the heat dome during the summer with exceptionally high temperatures. I’m wondering how these climate events–that seem to be more and more common–are informing your evolving understanding of this technique and how it can help us?
Garrett: The year of the heat dome, 2021, that you mentioned was very different from 2022 with that long wet spring. But I remember walking out in the field in 2021–we had a lot of variety trials going on and in some cases there was irrigated and dry farm comparisons and our research trials–and just noticing the dry farm crops amidst the heat domes just looking more vigorous, not wilting and drooping as much. So the plants themselves are really inspiring. And then looking from a year-to-year basis, I really am thinking a lot about diversity and the varieties that did well both in the heat dome and this past year in 2022 with that long wet spring. They adapt to the multitude of extremes that we’re going to experience. I think the plants hold a lot of wisdom there and it can be a source of inspiration. So crop and variety selection is a really important tool for us.
Norcross: There are basic economics that you have to face. I would assume that dry farming has lower yields than the scaled up methods that we normally use. If this method is adopted widely across the region, would that mean less production and thus higher prices?
Garrett: That’s a great question. And that’s one that’s asked a lot and there is often a yield reduction with dry farming, but crop and variety selection can sometimes make up that difference and there are also less weeds to manage. So when we’re not irrigating then we are managing the weeds. Weed management is a really huge time sink for farmers so there’s the economics of that, not just in kind of the yield to market, but also the time and inputs that go into it and managing your irrigation system, fixing the pump, the leaks and other things that might happen. Some of our colleagues have done time studies looking at dry farmed and irrigated comparisons. So I think there’s a bigger picture to economics beyond yield that can sometimes make sense, but we have a lot to learn there too and I think a lot of that work is not yet published.
Norcross: Are there lessons in all this for us gardeners?
Garrett: Absolutely. I think there’s a huge interest amongst our gardener communities. I think a lot of gardeners, especially in urban situations, are looking at the water bill in August and September and thinking how can we implement some of these techniques? But if a gardener just has a container garden, for example, dry farming is not going to be conducive because the ability to root and access what they need is really important. But some of the larger gardens or gardeners that maybe have a well or they’re irrigating off of a well that might be inconsistently maybe running dry in drought years, there’s a lot of opportunity depending on the context of the garden.
Norcross: Last question is for you, Lucas. More and more people seem to be interested in knowing how their food gets to them and the practices that go into producing it. Can you envision a time when people are as interested in knowing if their food was dry farmed as they are in knowing if their food is organic or non GMO, for example?
Nebert: With the OSU Dry Farming Project and also Amy at the Dry Farming Institute nonprofit, have been envisioning this future where there’s more awareness of dry farming. Coming down the pipes, we’re hoping for some kind of dry farming label system where producers can label their produce that has been dry farmed similar to the GMO labels that you see now so hopefully it would build more awareness for dry farming.
Norcross: Thank you both.
Nebert / Garrett: Thank you.
Norcross: Amy Garrett is the board president of the Dry Farming Institute. Lucas Nebert is a research associate at Oregon State University.
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