Have You Ever Heard of Dry Farming?

Aug 12th

For us gardeners, it might seem like an idiotic idea. I mean, plants need water to thrive, right? In my garden, things start going very wrong very quickly if I cut off the water supply. However, I’ve been intrigued with the idea ever since my husband met a farmer who used dry farming techniques with his orchards and informed him that his fruit was sweeter, more flavorful and nutrient dense vs. your standard grown fruit.

A couple weeks ago my local co-op had dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes. My husband and I gravitated to them from opposite sides of the produce section at almost exactly the same time. The tomatoes were smaller than your typical tomato-on-the-vine that I usually buy. And they were an incredible deep, brick red. The produce manager, whom we like to consider one of our friends, raved about their taste. We picked up a couple pounds and went home to make bruschetta.

I used my standard recipe for bruschetta with balsamic reduction, but this – this was something special. The tomatoes were so sweet, so flavorful, that I kept forgetting to drizzle over the balsamic reduction. The tomato’s flavor mingled with the basil, garlic and feta in an unimaginably tasty combination. I almost felt naughty as I was eating. Can something really be this good? The next day I went back for three more pounds.

So what is dry farming? I set out to learn more and have been surprised to find so little information. There is numerous short articles and a few dated books on the topic, but at this point in time, I couldn’t find a good book on the topic or any lengthy discussion of how-to. But I was able to glean some insight from what I did find. Dry farming involves raising your crop – generally tree fruits and some vegetables that tend to have a higher water content, such as tomatoes and melons – and growing them from the start with limited water. Take note, dry farming will not work if you decide half way through the growing season to dry farm your own tomatoes. The plants will not be prepared and will wither and die.

Dry farm tomatoes are started off with limited water, which forces the plant to shoot roots down deeper into the soil to quench their thirst. Soil management is also an integral part of dry-farming. Sandy, fast draining soils are not ideal for dry farming. You want good, loamy soil with high levels of organic matter that will retain what little moisture is already available. Climate also plays a part, though I admit I’m still a little foggy on what the ideal climate is. By the time the tomato plants are ready for harvest, they look half dead. Dry farmed tomatoes are also, of course, smaller than tomatoes grown with ample water. Which means yields are lower. Lower yields is a major barrier for many farmers, as unless you can command a premium price, you won’t have as much product to sell as you would with standard organically grown crops. From the various examples I read, it appears you can expect about half or less of your typical yield by pound. That said, dry farmed produce is growing in popularity and could be a niche crop for small farmers to incorporate into their product offerings.

Regardless of the economic challenges facing dry farming, after eating those dry farmed tomatoes I can say I am all in on the idea and plan on starting trials next year. If you have any experience with dry farming, please share your story and provide any tips you may have!

Photo Credit: Susie Wyshak, 2008. Title: Monterey Market Goldmine Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 license