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Dry farming possible solution to irrigation woes

POSTED May 24, 2013 5:14 p.m.

Although the technique of dry farming is centuries old, area farmers are reviving the seldom used practice in preparation for irrigation shortfalls.

The idea of dry farming is simple. Farmers rely on rainwater instead of irrigation to water the crops. The pros? Not having to pump out groundwater and yielding better tasting fruits. The cons? A possible risk of no rain, which can prove to be a financial disaster.

The technique, which began in more arid areas like the Mediterranean, is catered more towards vineyards and dry crops including olives and grapes. Unlike ranified agriculture, which revolves around the growth of crops during the rainy season, dry farming is a summer technique that only uses collected moisture in the soil to help fruits grow.

Dean Alley, an Agricultural Studies student at California State University, Stanislaus, said sustainable methods like dry farming are going to be pivotal in maintaining the future agricultural integrity of the Valley.

“Farmers are going to be forced into finding more sustainable methods of growing their crops," said Alley. “Maybe we won’t see it in our lifetime but eventually we will deplete our resources and when that happens the Valley will not be productive.”

According to the U.S Geological Survey, approximately one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated land is in the Central Valley, and about one-fifth of the nation’s groundwater demand is supplied from its aquifers. Additionally, half a million acres in California is used for agriculture and only 2,000 of those acres are dry farmed.

“The aquifer that the Valley sits on is depleting constantly,” said Alley. “It’s not a renewable source and we’re going to have figure out ways to start conserving water.”

Frog’s Leap vineyard, a 250 acre vineyard in Napa Valley, conserves roughly 64,000 gallons of water per acre through dry farming each year.

Along with water conservation, proponents of dry farming argue that the taste and flavor of those crops that are dry farmed is superior to those that use drip irrigation.

However, some farmers would argue against the proposed sustainability of dry farming. Stephen Smith, owner and operator of Turlock Fruit Company, disagrees with the notion that dry farming is a practical means of producing a usable yield of crop.

“To me, sustainable means producing the most crop in the most efficient way. It’s not very sustainable if you rely only on rainwater,” said Smith. ‘It’s a bit of a ridiculous premise.”

According to the Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, some barley and oats have been grown via dry farming. However, the practice has not yet been readily used by all growers.

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