Farming Without Water? Age-Old Techniques Are Making a Comeback
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Having wide orchard rows, which allow tree roots to spread out, is essential for dry-farming apples, as is thinning (removing much of the fruit early in its development) to ensure that each apple gets as much water as possible. In dryer years (like this one), Devoto must work extra hard to control weeds, which drink water needed by thirsty trees. As the summer progresses, the ground slowly dries out, stressing out the fruits as they ripen, which helps the sugars become more concentrated.
But while water conservation and intensely flavorful crops are the clear benefits of dry farming, the major tradeoff is yield. Devoto says that apple growers in West Sonoma County, which was once home to a booming apple industry, only get about 12 tons per acre, compared to 30 to 40 tons produced by large apple farms in the Central Valley.
Similarly, Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce says that his famous dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes sometimes yield only about a third of what their irrigated counterparts produce. Meanwhile, Little estimates that he gets about a quarter to a third the yield of large organic potato growers. “It it’s hard to compete with some of these big organic farms that are watering,” he says.
Without irrigation, his crops are at the mercy of seasonal rainfall and varying soil conditions from year to year. “You’re on the edge constantly, and one little thing could tip you over,” Little reflects. “We’re barely making it, really, but I believe in coastal farming. I believe we’re going to come back to it.”
While dry farming has geographic limitations, it could pave the way for more coastal agriculture and offer techniques for farmers in dryer areas to farm with less water. “The coast of California used to be our main source of food in the state, until they started developing farms in the Central Valley because of all the water,” Little continues. “Now they’re running out of water.”
Devoto’s Gravenstein apples, an early-season heirloom variety that represents Sonoma County’s agricultural heritage, return to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market this week. “Apples grown in the West County may not be picture-perfect or super large,” Devoto notes. “But the flavor is just phenomenal.”