This week, as the nation grapples with the worst drought in decades, the USDA added more than 218 counties to its list of natural disaster areas, bringing the total to 1,584 -- more than half of all U.S. counties. Farmers in the Midwest and Great Plains have been the hardest hit, but the drought is a growing reality for farmers across the country, including California. While the secretary of agriculture won’t comment on the drought’s link to climate change, it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and as global warming unfolds, knowledge of dryland agriculture will become increasingly valuable.
David Little of Little Organic Farm has had to adapt to water scarcity in California's Marin and Sonoma counties, where most farmers and ranchers rely on their own reservoirs, wells, and springs, making them particularly vulnerable in years with light rainfall. Through a technique known as dry farming, Little’s potatoes and squash receive no irrigation, getting all of their water from the soil.
Mediterranean grape and olive growers have dry-farmed for thousands of years. The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century. Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit.
“In the beginning, I searched out people who were known dry-farmers,” says Little, who started farming in 1995. “It seemed like no one had done it for 30 years or so.”
To find mentors, Little made the rounds at local bars, asking older farmers about their experiences. “They were very humble,” he says. “They told stories about how things were done, and I would pick up tidbits.” After years of trial and error, he now considers himself an expert.