After this year’s dismal snowpack survey predicted a serious water shortage for huge swaths of California’s farmland, some farmers are investigating an ancient technique called “dry farming.” As the Sacramento Bee highlighted last week, farmers in the Central Valley, which supplies a quarter of the American food supply, have started experimenting with conserving reservoir water and relying only on rainwater to sustain crops.
Dry farming is risky, as it requires farmers to gamble on rainfall, trap it in the soil, and sustain it for long dry spells. Much of the state experienced record low rainfalls in the past year. And climate change threatens to reduce precipitation even more. But immediate concern over the valley’s fast-depleting groundwater stores has prompted farmers to take the risk — with some success.
According to a study by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a 250-acre vineyard practicing dry farming in Napa has conserved roughly 64,000 gallons of water per acre each year. About 2,000 out of half a million acres of vineyards are dry-farmed.
Dry-farming, a common practice for centuries, seemed to dwindle in popularity in the past few decades as farmers relied more on surface irrigation. But proponents of the practice swear that dry-farmed crops, while smaller than their conventional counterparts, have more concentrated nutrients and stronger flavors due to lower water absorption.
The past year’s record low rainfall has left California farmers desperate for solutions. Bracing themselves for droughts that will only grow longer and more severe with climate change, farmers are looking for water-conserving alternatives to currently unsustainable practices. Besides dry-farming, farmers are adopting more efficient irrigation systems, creating water storage areas like on-farm ponds, and developing drought-resistant crops.
Farmers were hit hard by last year’s dry growing season, with yields in corn-heavy states plummeting to 30-year lows. The nation’s wheat and livestock supplies have also been decimated over the past year. The USDA has been forced to bail out drought-stricken farmers by buying up millions of pounds of meat. As a result, food prices are sky-high and many experts fear a global food shortage.