California Farmers Explore Water-Conserving Agriculture For A Drought-Filled Future

Credit: Community Alliance with Family Farmers

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.

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7 Responses to California Farmers Explore Water-Conserving Agriculture For A Drought-Filled Future

  1. I am not sure that there is as much to be optimistic about as this article implies. The fact is that the largest water users, especially the Westlands Water District, are increasing their demands for water and seem to have to political clout to make it happen. At best, this dry farming is one way for a few family farms to protect themselves from the effects of a drought of political ideas.

    I find that the agricultural scientists at the University of California – Davis are the source for the best ideas on this. In March of 2013, they hosted a global conference on Climate Smart Agriculture. The proceedings can be viewed from

    That conference brought attention no only to drought, but to the wide range of agricultural problems we will be facing: the need to change crop selection as temperature warm; the loss of valuable agricultural land to drought, flood and sea level rise; the need to divert water from agricultural use to urban use as global population increases; the increasing un-reliability of groundwater sources as aquifers are pumped dry. I quote from one USDA study: “In 1970, when the last comprehensive surveys
    of land subsidence were made, subsidence
    in excess of 1 foot had affected
    more than 5,200 square miles of irrigable
    land—one-half the entire San Joaquin
    Valley (Poland and others, 1975). The
    maximum subsidence, near Mendota, was
    more than 28 feet.” It has gotten worse since then.

  2. I don’t know about Napa, but here in Santa Clara County, dry farming vineyards are pretty common up in the Santa Cruz mountains. New vines need irrigation, but after several years they can do okay without. Valley floor vineyards all need irrigation though as far as I know.

  3. Joan Savage says:

    With what we learn about variability in climate change, dry farming practices might not be enough. Most dry farming relies on regular seasons – albeit seasons with low moisture conditions. Some versions of dry farming include risks that showed up in the Dust Bowl – exposed fields left fallow without a cover crop or with only a dust mulch, vulnerable to heat and wind.
    It’s a work in progress.

  4. farmwater says:

    There is a reason dry land farming has been declining in popularity, as the article states. It’s just not as productive. According to a 2001 study by Peralta and Stockle, irrigation on land allows it to be twice as productive. Modern irrigation techniques, such as those widely used in California, have almost immensely increased crop production on the same amount of applied water as was used over 40 years ago. At a time when millions of people worldwide are entering middle income brackets and becoming larger food consumers, does it make sense to adopt old, less productive practices when they could hasten a global food shortage?

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  5. Mike, it makes as much sense as does spending so much of California’s money on two big tunnels when that entire project will, according to Jerry Meral in the Stockton Record, will not add any additional water. CA can not continue to divert more water for ag, or for urban use when we know that the future will be drier. What do you want to do, continue to pump more groundwater until the Central Valley is below current sea level? Remember that subsidence near Mendota is already over 28 ft.

  6. Brooks Bridges says:

    You seemed to have missed or ignored a key sentence in the article:

    “But immediate concern over the valley’s fast-depleting groundwater stores has prompted farmers to take the risk — with some success.”

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Oz has lots of ‘dry farming’ and it has always been risky but as the climate destabilization increases, suicide rates among farmers have risen again, ME