Dry Farming: Tackling Water Scarcity in California

As the drought is becoming more and more impactful on California’s agriculture, farmers are turning to unique methods in order to keep growing their crops. Water scarcity is increasing by the day, and farmers are scrambling for solutions. One of these methods is known as “dry farming”, a technique that has been around for thousands of years.


Dry farming basically explains itself. There is essentially no irrigation used whatsoever, with farmers purely relying on the moisture already trapped within soil. Therefore, farmers look for high quality soil that can retain moisture in an area that gets at least 10 to 20 inches of rainfall per year. Although these parameters might be hard to find in some areas, farmers in northern and coastal regions of California, from Napa to Santa Barbara, have found this method of agriculture to be effective.


Although one might be skeptical of this approach, saying that relying on soil moisture is not enough to allow a crop to grow, farmers have proved time and time again that dry farming works. By spacing out crops, and allowing root structures to spread and reach moisture within the dirt, plants are able to flourish without irrigation. Farmers have used dry farming techniques for crops such as olives, apples, grapes, watermelons, a variety of grains, and tomatoes – just to name a few.

There are some downsides to dry farming, however. Firstly, one can not guarantee a plentiful yield on dry farmed crops every year. With soil composition constantly changing, and moisture levels completely dependent upon the environment, the amount of crops coming out of a farm every year will change. Secondly, with less water being used, the size of the crops may vary, such as a smaller size – but more concentrated taste – in apples. Lastly, dry farmed plots of agriculture take longer to develop, due to the root structures of plants needing to spread out and establish themselves before then can yield produce. 


Despite the obstacles that dry farming presents, farmers have been very successful in recent years with dry farming techniques. There are even farmers that have been dry farming before the drought was impacting agriculture, such as Stan Devoto, who as been using this agricultural practice since 1970. Although these farmers may face challenges regarding dry farming, communities can team up and share their knowledge to increase their crop’s yields. This method of agriculture can become widespread and be at least part of the solution to farming during California’s water shortage.


  1. http://agwaterstewards.org/index.php/practices/dry_farming/
  2. http://www.cuesa.org/article/farming-without-water
  3. http://cropsfordrylands.com/wp-content/uploads/Dryland-Farming-Crops-Tech-for-Arid-Regions.pdf


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10 responses to “Dry Farming: Tackling Water Scarcity in California

  1. seanfox1

    I know you don’t mention this in your post, but I think this is an important question to ask when thinking about convincing other farmers; From an economic perspective is dry farming worth it? Are the water and environmental savings worth the lower yeilds? Just wondering if you came across any of this information in your research.


    • NiccoloDeluca

      Economically, there is a risk regarding dry farming due to the variance in yields of crops. I do not know if the water and environmental savings are worth the lower yields, however with the lack of water in California a lot of famers are turning to this method out of necessity.


  2. blakecurran1

    Wow have never heard of this practice before, sounds pretty awesome. With warming temps along the board and less preciptation do you see this being a short term or long term answer? Once the moisture is all used up in the soil and no precip falling might it just be a waste with no yields. The crops that you listed seem to be pretty water intensive crops, do you think that they should be grown in an area where they are not native?


    • NiccoloDeluca

      I see this being a short term solution due to the smaller yields that dry farming provides. Therefore, with new solutions to a shortage of water and higher temperature, farmers can find better agricultural methods in the future. I think that crops should be grown where they thrive the most, however some farmers that specialize in a certain crop don’t have the resources and ability to move.


  3. When we learned about this in lecture I was interested on following up, especially because I had heard about the drought more in previous years. This is a very interesting technique/ possibility in better allocating water for California agriculture. Do you know if farmers are interested in using this method? or if there are any impacts on the crops?


    • NiccoloDeluca

      Farmers are extremely interested in any new method of farming, especially if it doesn’t involve irrigation! However, there is impact on the crops with smaller yields. With the smaller yields provides more flavor, however, with less water being in the crops so sugars can stand out.


  4. wow, this is cool, but I don’t understand how they do it…I mean you mention that plants are more spaced out and aren’t irrigated… but I just can’t see just that being effective, like do they need to use more fertilizers, or…? It just seems too good to be true!

    also, do you think GMOs could help in some way? or do you know if these are already GM crops (and that’s why it’s successful)?

    this is supper interesting, thank you for writing about it!


    • NiccoloDeluca

      I agree it does sound too good to be true! As mentioned in other comments, dry farming does if fact need no irrigation, purely relying on water retained in the ground. The crops don’t need more fertilizers, but smaller yields are expected with dry farming. I believe that GMOs could help by having genetic makeups in crops that maximize the use of the water they receive from dry farming. I do not know if there are already GMO crops in use for this method of agriculture. Thank you for your comment!


  5. jackkotarba

    Do you think further research into dry farming could make it more applicable in difficult environments or maybe used in greenhouse environments?


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