Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Beyond Wheat: Dry Farming in the Pacific Northwest

Karla Salp

While growing wheat without irrigation is common on expansive farms in Eastern Washington, growing vegetables without supplemental water is rare.

Tomatoes, zucchini and even pumpkins – one of the most water-dependent crops – are being grown without irrigation and it's being done right here in the Pacific Northwest.

What is dry farming?


Dry farming consists of raising crops in areas with wet winters and dry summers. Most dry farmers agree that you need at least 15-20 inches of rain annually to dry farm. Certain areas of California, Oregon and Washington have the required weather pattern to dry farm successfully.


The right soil is also needed to dry farm. The soil depth should be a minimum of 60 inches and should have good water-holding capacity. Maintaining soil moisture during long dry periods is critical and requires tillage, soil protection and the use of drought-resistant varieties.

Seed varieties 

The final factor to consider is crop variety. As dry farmers are learning, there is a wide variance in yield from one crop variety to the next. For example, one type of watermelon may have a productive yield on a dry farm, while other varieties lag far behind. Finding these drought-tolerant varieties is key to dry farming success.

Photos courtesy of Oregon State University

Should you dry farm?

The most obvious benefit of dry farming is that the farmer does not have to irrigate the crop. This can be very appealing in areas where there are water right issues or a risk of drought. Overall, dry farmers say that not irrigating means less work and fewer weeds.

In addition to the sustainability factor, many dry farmers claim the produce tastes better with flavors more concentrated in the dry farmed produce. Blind taste-testers have tended to agree.

Why doesn’t everyone dry farm?

While dry farming may appear to be the future in areas with the right weather and soil, there are challenges.


Interestingly, with the right variety, the yield per plant of a given crop can be as high as, and sometimes higher than, irrigated plants. However, dry farmed plants must be spaced much farther apart so as to reduce competition for water. Fewer plants per acre means a lower overall yield.

This may be the Achilles heel of dry farming. In a world where farmland is being swallowed up by urban areas every day, the future challenge for farming is to produce more food – not less– on shrinking farmland.

Currently, farmers are primarily paid on yield. Dry farming yields for vegetables will likely be too low to financially sustain a farmer unless the produce itself demands a much higher price, for example by having superior flavor compared to irrigated crops.

There are also very few areas in the world with the proper weather and soil to make dry farming feasible. So while there are opportunities for dry farming, it isn’t applicable to much of the world.
Another challenge is that very little research has been done to determine what varieties perform best with dry farming. Most seeds today have been developed with the advantage of irrigation, resulting in few varieties that are adapted for drought tolerance.

Opportunities and Adventure

In the areas where dry farming is feasible, it is an exciting time to be involved.

Through work at Oregon State University, a Dry Farming Collaborative group has formed on Facebook for those interested in learning about and supporting the development of dry farming. For example, members work on trials of various crop varieties and share their success and failures with the group. They also influence and even participate in field research.

Dry farming will never work on many farms, but it does present an interesting opportunity for those with the right climate and soil.

And agriculture as a whole may benefit from dry farming research as well. From the development of dry farming practices and drought-resistance plant breeds may come better tools, methods and plant varieties that may enable many farmers to decrease their reliance on water.

In the end, dry farming may lead to more sustainable agriculture for everyone.

Visit Oregon State University's website for more info.