California is in its third year of a historic drought — and every Californian is feeling the pinch. Lawmakers recently approved a $500 fine for residents who waste water on lawns, but it’s the state’s farmers who are experiencing the most pain.
Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water use, and with wells drying up, the results have been environmentally and financially devastating — costing billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. And when half of our nation’s food comes from the Golden State, this is an issue all Americans should be concerned about.
There are already several interesting solutions to counter the catastrophic drought, and in the midst of all that talk, an old-fashioned farming method has also been brought to the table, especially since it requires no irrigation at all. It’s called “dry farming.”
Modern Farmer touts this practice as “a refreshing answer” for farming in arid landscapes such as California that receive precipitation in small spurts. The process (which has been used historically in dry regions in the Mediterranean and the American west) involves sealing the top few inches of soil into a dry crust to prevent moisture from escaping after rainfall. Because crops are getting less water from above, their roots push lower into the ground, searching for moisture.
MORE: The Silver Lining to California’s Terrible Drought
A few Californian vineyards and farms already use dry farming on fruits and vegetables such as grapes, tomatoes, apples, grapes, melons and potatoes. NPR reported that a “garden that goes unwatered for months may produce sweeter, more flavorful fruits than anything available in most mainstream supermarkets.” These crops, since they are so niche and tasty, indeed go for a premium.
Dry farming, however, might not work large-scale since it results in a much lower yield (Slate found that dry-farmed apples averaged 12 to 14 tons per acre versus the 20 to 40 tons per acre on irrigated apple farms) there are some additional benefits. Modern Farmer reports that since dry farms do not use any irrigation methods, it saves on the infrastructure and the maintenance of of wells, pumps, tanks and piping.
But since the drought could cost California’s Central Valley (the state’s farming hub) $810 million in lost crop revenue, dry farming is an alternative that might be worth every penny.
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