In Oregon, farmers, educators and gardeners are exploring the benefits of dry farming. The method relies on water stored in soil during a rainy season to produce crops during a dry season. The Dry Farming Collaborative at Oregon State University will host an event on Feb. 8 to discuss best practices.
“I think the plants hold a lot of wisdom,” said Amy Garrett, the board president of the Dry Farming Institute, a nonprofit that works to market produce grown through dry farming and raise awareness of the water-conserving technique. “It can be a source of inspiration.”
Dry farming is not a new idea. Native American communities have used dry farming methods for thousands of years. But as some agricultural producers experience more years of drought and face water shortages, interest in dry farming techniques has grown.
“Before the rise of dams and aquifer pumping, [dry farming] was just farming,” Garrett said. “It was how people were growing within the constraints of their climate and soil.”
Garrett initiated dry farming projects at OSU in 2014. Years later, researchers continue to uncover new applications for dry farming in Oregon.
For example, tomatoes traditionally raised in places with a Mediterranean climate like Italy and Spain have been successfully grown at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture in Corvallis using dry farming methods.
“Fruits and vegetables that can be grown are typically those that can root deeper and have some kind of drought tolerance,” said Lucas Nebert, a research associate at OSU. “Either to escape the drought by producing earlier or by being able to tolerate higher temperatures with less water.”
Leafy greens, on the other hand, have been grown with mixed success. Nebert added that drought-stressed lettuce might not be as flavorful.
Still, interest in dry farming has been increasing over the years, especially as drought years create summertime water shortages for Oregon producers.
“I know that the 2015 drought was a real eye-opener for a lot of farmers,” Garrett said. “Even those with water rights had irrigation restricted that year early in the growing season.”
Produce grown using dry farming techniques appears to manage unexpected weather events too. In 2021, record-breaking high temperatures gripped the Pacific Northwest from late June through mid-July.
Dry-farmed plants, Garrett said, appeared more vigorous and less affected than plants relying on more water that year.
Moving forward, Garrett said, there’s more to learn about the economics of dry farming techniques and the best environments for their use. OSU’s collaborative has worked primarily with small farms and gardeners because they tend to have more flexibility around crop production.
Garrett and Nebert spoke to “Think Out Loud” guest host Geoff Norcross about dry farming. Click play to listen to the full conversation: