An ancient drought-friendly farming process could become the next organics

You never miss the water ’til the well runs dry.
You never miss the water ’til the well runs dry.
Image: AP Photo/Phil Klein
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In 2008, when Brice Jones decided to stop irrigating his grapevines, California was in the middle of a drought. Jones, however, wasn’t thinking about water conservation. He was thinking about making California pinot noir that would rival French burgundy.

Jones had been in the winemaking business in California for decades and like most wine makers in the state, had never questioned the need to add extra water to his vineyards to compensate for the lack of summer rain. But when he began discussing how to establish an irrigation system in his new project, Emeritus Winery, set on an apple orchard in the Russian River Valley, his then business partner, from France, was aghast and suggested that he dry farm his grapes.

French winemakers believe supplementing natural rainfall on their vineyards dilutes the character of the wine. In fact, in many parts of Europe, where wetter weather makes irrigation unnecessary, it’s actually illegal to irrigate vineyards.

Drip irrigation came to California in the 1970s, letting farmers plant more fruits, vegetables, and nuts more closely together and in desert areas not naturally suited for agriculture. Today, dry farming, once the norm, is a niche agricultural method practiced only by a quirky few traditionalists concerned more about tasty produce than saving water.

But as California settles into a drought-stricken future and the price of water soars, more farmers and winemakers are looking to dry farming techniques to reduce the amount of water they use.

“We’re at an important inflection point,” said Heather Cooley, water program director at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. While some California farmers are letting fields lie fallow because they are too expensive to water, others are maintaining record revenues by tapping groundwater reserves, a practice that is unsustainable in the long term. “Farmers have to figure out how to produce crops with less water,” she said.

In theory, dry farming seems like the magic salve that could cure California of its water woes. After all, California farmers dry farmed for years before irrigation arrived. And, because the resulting crops and produce often taste better, farmers may be able to charge more for them, making up for the lower yields. The famous California wines that won at the Judgment of Paris in 1976 were dry farmed, said Frank Leeds, vice president of operations at Frog’s Leap Winery.

“I don’t understand why more people don’t do it,” said Leeds, whose family has been dry farming in Rutherford, California since the 1920s. In the 1990s, Leeds was the odd man out in Napa, not irrigating his fields. People “think I am doing this to save water, but this has nothing to do with the drought. The wine just tastes better,” he said.

Easier said than done

Given the current state of California agriculture, however, dry farming “is easier said than done,” said Samuel Sandoval Solis, a water resources expert at the University of California, Davis.

Irrigated perennials become accustomed to the abundant water—their roots bunch up close to the soil surface creating a vicious cycle where they need additional water to survive. The roots of dry-farmed crops, meanwhile, stretch far deeper below the earth finding moisture and nutrients underground to survive. In addition, farmers till the soil surface to create a sponge that traps the moisture underground to help crops last through dry weather.

But because it takes time to wean plants off of irrigation, the drought is a tricky time to start dry farming, said David Runsten, policy director at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

At Emeritus, vineyard manager Kirk Lokka, said that it took years before the vines grew deep enough to survive on only rainfall. The first year the winery switched to dry farming, it had 40% lower yields. Jones estimates that Emeritus lost around $350,000 in revenue in 2009, $225,000 in 2010, and $150,000 in 2011 until vines got used to life without irrigation. Now Jones estimates that the vine roots extend 20 feet underground.

Plus, dry farming won’t work in desert areas or for all crops.

But Runsten believes that the biggest obstacle is the market, since farms that don’t irrigate yield fewer crops, making their produce more expensive. He points out that people may be willing to pay extra for a tasty tomato or really good pinot noir, but there is a limit to how much people are willing to pay for, say, dry-farmed potatoes.

Ultimately though, California’s farmers may not have a choice. Already hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed because of lack of water. In the future, farmers will have to plant less water-intensive crops and move away from land not naturally suited to agriculture.

“I think it’s really starting to happen,” said Stephen Gliessman, agroecology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Gliessman started Condor’s Hope Vineyard with his wife in the early 1990s after spending time in Mexico observing farmers practice traditional farming methods such as dry farming.  Back then he likened his winery to California condors being released back into the wild: “If there was hope for them, there was hope for us.”

Two decades later, dry farming has become far less exotic. “It took several years, but now dry farmed tomatoes are sold at Whole Foods in our region,” said Gliessman.