Farming Without Irrigation

Dry farmed organic agriculture

Courtesy of Dirty Girl Produce

The catastrophic drought raging across the United States right now is a reminder not only of the climate chaos that’s going to increasingly drive the economic environment but also of the longer background reality that as a country and as a world we’re really not doing very much to manage our supply of fresh water sensibly. Brie Mazurek at Grist profiles a few operations that rely on a method of “dry farming” that gets by without traditional surface irrigation and still manages to deliver the agricultural goods. Yet even its proponents say the difficulty with this approach is that you grow much less food:

“When you water a tree, it dilutes the flavor a lot in some cases,” says Stan Devoto, who dry-farms more than 50 varieties of heirloom apples at Devoto Gardens. “Instead of having a really hard, crisp, firm texture, your apple will be two or three times the size of a dry-farmed apple, and you just don’t get the flavor.” […]

But while water conservation and intensely flavorful crops are the clear benefits of dry farming, the major tradeoff is yield. Devoto says that apple growers in West Sonoma County, which was once home to a booming apple industry, only get about 12 tons per acre, compared to 30 to 40 tons produced by large apple farms in the state’s Central Valley.

Similarly, Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce says that his famous dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes sometimes yield only about a third of what their irrigated counterparts produce. Meanwhile, Little estimates that he gets about a quarter to a third the yield of large organic potato growers. “It it’s hard to compete with some of these big organic farms that are watering,” he says.

I think the bottom line here is that the continued availability of water for irrigation purposes is pretty important to growing the food the world needs to eat.