Takeaway: Dry farming is a neat technique for growing crops in low-moisture areas. In other words, you can grow literally anywhere where your dry soil fits these conditions. All you need is patience, to find enjoyment in gambling, and a love for your soil.
The conditions may not always be right, but don’t let that stop you. If you live somewhere where it’s dry, you sure can still grow crops through a technique called dry farming. All you need is an understanding of how soil works, a commitment to producing the best quality soil, and aren’t afraid to take a gamble. In any case, you’ll learn that this is a good technique for you to be aware of and know how to use. (Best Book I recommend)
What is dry farming?
Dry farming sounds difficult and impossible. Believe it or not, it’s not either of those. It’s science. Dry farming uses soils that are great at holding water, such as, soils with clay content. To keep the soil fertile and maintain tilth, dry farming utilizes livestock such as sheep and geese, along with cover crops like legumes. The sheep and geese help with fertility and tilth. The legumes are very important for nitrogen fixing which is 100% necessary for all plants grown on that plot.
The typical dry farmer will work the soil in the first dry part of the spring when the soil sticks to the soil but will still crumple apart. Essentially, it’s all about timing and careful observation. You basically assess the soil, work it, then let it sit for a few weeks before going back and repeating the process in order to get it ready to plant seeds.
"A LOT OF OLD TIMERS WILL TELL YOU THAT INSTEAD OF ‘IRRIGATION,’ THEY CALL IT ‘IRRITATION.’ "
RYAN POWER, NEW FAMILY FARM
When it’s time to seed, if you do direct seeding, you would drop the seeds so that they’re just touching the soil and wicking the soil from the surface for germination. It’s important that the soil isn’t compact. Rather, it should be super fluffy to help with root development and maintaining moisture. Sometimes when you get a heavy rain, the soil gets compacted and cracks which leads to drying out the soil and dead plants because it can’t retain its moisture.
Also, note the importance of spacing. In these environments, plants have to work harder to get nutrients. Don’t complicate the situation by planting them close together.
What type of plants would you actually grow in these environments?
Honestly, and surprisingly, there are quite a few including tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, garlic, fava beans, sunflowers, sorghum, cotton, wheat, corn, grapes, pumpkins, winter squash, olives, cantaloupes, and many types of beans.
Why would you dry farm?
Well, you may not have a choice in the matter. This is one reason behind it. However, there are other reasons such as resisting to build a dependency on the need of water. If you think you’ll have a drought at some point or are prone to droughts, this is a good option because then you don’t rely on water to grow your crops. Or, perhaps you’re looking to build an irrigation system but don’t have the funds to do so…then try dry farming until you can get a solid supply of water. Then some people believe dry farming produces better quality produce. Supposedly it tastes better. In fact, some chefs in California will only use dry farmed tomatoes.
But, wait! There’s more! There are times when you should SERIOUSLY NOT do dry farming. If your soil is shallow and sandy, just don’t do it. It won’t hold the water and the ground will be bone dry, so the plants cannot survive.
Dry farming from your homestead
Absorb and Protect Moisture
Conservation is key. “Protect” every drop of water in your soil. There are some ways to do this. First of all, fallow rotation is a common practice where one crop is grown on two seasons worth or precipitation which leaves crop residue and stubble….almost like a small fence of plants that block off the runoff.
Terracing is another good option for smaller land where farmers basically shape the land to slow water runoff downhill. They typically do this by plowing along contours and grooves. Moisture will be conserved by getting rid of leaves and leaving crop residue behind to shade the soil.
Use the Moisture Wisely
Moisture in dry farming is precious. As soon as it’s available, use it wisely. This means seed planting depth and timing are very important. You want to make sure you plant deep enough that the seeds can reach the moisture or get moisture when you get the seasonal precipitation. To make sure you do get a crop, it’s best to use drought and heat-stress tolerant seeds.
Conserve the Soil
Erosion is a big problem with dry farming. Wind erosion, in particular. Then you run into the issue of conserving topsoil or tilling for moisture. Healthy topsoil is extremely important to successful dry farming, so tilling is a no-go. In fact, topsoil preservation is the most important element of dry farming. So, use erosion control techniques. These include windbreaks, no tillage, spreading straw, and strip farming.
Careful with the Input Costs
There’s a good chance your dry crops won’t work out. It’s a high-risk practice. This can be super expensive for farmers. So, as a dry farmer, you really need to sit down and consider what is really needed and what isn’t. This means cutting out fertilizer and weed control if you’re going to get a poor yield because of little moisture. However, if you feel there is sufficient moisture, go ahead and spend that extra money on fertilizer and weed control. It’s a gamble, but you want to make the best choice.
Dry farming provides evidence that you can farm anywhere. You can grow crops literally anywhere because they’re tolerant. They adapt. If you give them what they need to survive, they’ll grow. Just understand the risks and benefits and give it a shot if it’ll fit your climate. Don’t let the weather hold you back!
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Lindsey Hyland grew up in Arizona where she attended University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture. She has supplemented her formal education by working on various organic farms, including spending a semester abroad in India.
Growing and/or raising just about anything gets her excited. She is especially passionate about environmental justice and low-tech, sustainable ways to better run small-scale farms and homesteads. Lindsey started Urban Organic Yield to discuss gardening tips and tactics.