Dry farming refers to crop cultivation where the residual moisture in the soil is used instead of irrigation. This is usually done in a region that receives twenty inches or more of annual rainfall. Dry farming works to conserve soil moisture during long dry periods primarily through a system of tillage, surface protection, and the use of drought-resistant varieties. Dry farming is more than the absence of irrigation—the soil, type of crop, regional rainfall, and types of tools must be considered.
Joe Curry, farmer and founding member of Molino Creek Farm Collective, uses a water efficient method of raising crops—dry farming—which does not utilize irrigation at all, but instead manages the field’s soil moisture prior to planting. The dry farming method saves on water and produces a smaller, more nutritious and flavor-rich tomato to be sold at market.
Molino Creek Farm Collective has been dry farming tomatoes for over thirty years. Joe Curry and the Farm Collective began dry farming because they “didn’t have much water.” No irrigation is used once the seedlings are in the field, which makes dry farming a great method for farmers with little access to water.
“Dry farming starts with managing the soil moisture,” says Joe. Seedlings are grown in the greenhouse as usual, while the soil in the field is being developed to sustain tomato starts. The seedlings are taken out of the greenhouse to harden off and are soon transplanted to the field. The soil is developed so that “what fell as rain [will] stay where it is until a tomato root gets to it”. The plants in field do not get their moisture from above, but rather from below—their roots must burrow down to grab the water stored in the soil six to twelve inches below the surface.
Joe tells us that “dry farming doesn’t come without its price”: the tomatoes are under a bit of stress from having to work for their water, so the resulting product is smaller in size than an irrigated tomato. They are also, however, more nutrient-rich and more flavorful than normal tomatoes, some would argue.
Dry farming has benefited the members of Molino Creek Collective by giving them a niche market before many other people were involved in dry farming tomatoes. Joe Curry describes one highlight of his career working the fields as “being able to sell food directly to the people who are going to eat it” as “an honor and a privilege.”
2011 EcoFarm Conference Audio: Dry Farming for High Quality Crops
CAWSI’s Agricultural Water Stewardship Center: http://agwaterstewards.org/index.php/practices/dry_farming/
Molino Creek Farm Collective: http://www.molinocreek.com/molino_site/tomatoes.html
This project is funded in part by a water stewardship grant from the California Department of Food & Agriculture.