Extension Showing the Fruits of Dry Farming

By Mitch Lies, Growing Editor

Joelene Jebbia, production and irrigation manager for Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon, had her consciousness raised a little last summer.

Through participation in a Dry Farming Project through Oregon State University Extension Service, Jebbia said she learned that reducing irrigation, in some cases, could have positive effects on her production.

“It definitely made me think about all the other watering I do on the farm,” Jebbia said of her participation in project. “I actually watered our potatoes less last year, and I think we had less disease. The potatoes were a little smaller, but were higher quality.”

Jebbia’s experience with the four-year-old project is one example of how farmers are benefiting from it.

Funded in part by a federal grant, the project hopes to show that by utilizing drought-resistant varieties and certain soil conservation tactics, farmers can sustain and even increase crop production during periods of water scarcity.

“It is like raising consciousness,” she said. “I got to thinking that maybe I am creating more problems with diseases and insects by possibly providing too much water, and that I can alleviate some of that by being a little more conscious about watering.”

Amy Garrett, who serves Benton, Linn and Polk counties as an assistant professor of practice for Extension Service’s Small Farms Program, said Jebbia’s experience with the project is not unusual.

Farmers throughout Western Oregon and Northern California have adopted, or plan to adopt, changes in their irrigation management after attending Dry Farming workshops.

Among the planned changes farmers identified in a survey are to put more thought into using cover crops and selecting sites for dry farming on the basis of soil characteristics. Also, several respondents said they plan to reduce water use through deficit irrigation or other irrigation conservation techniques.

Jebbia said the project helped inform her on when crops can sustain production without water, and the most important times to provide water to crops.

I’ve been learning this all along for the past thirty years just by paying attention,” she said. “But it is nice to have somebody throw something out there that maybe I hadn’t thought of before.

“It gets me thinking,” she said.

Last year’s project included eight workshops and three dry-farming field days at trial sites in Philomath, Aurora, Ore., and in Southern Oregon’s Central Point. The project also led to the formation of a Dry Farming Collaborative, made up of growers, Extension educators, plant breeders and other agricultural professionals that are partnering to increase knowledge and awareness of dry farming management practices.

Garrett noted that the project started with case studies, but has blossomed into a regional movement with an engaged group of stakeholders from Oregon, Washington, California and beyond.

“Together we are co-creating the future of how we manage water on our farms, and proactively adapting to a changing climate,” Garrett said.

Jebbia, meanwhile, said she is going to increase production of tomato varieties that thrives in a water-restrictive environment. The dry-farmed Early Girl and Big Beef tomatoes, which Growing Together Farm produced in a small trial plot last year and sold at farmers’ markets, were a hit with consumers.

“The tomato was smaller than a tomato that has been farmed with water,” she said, “and the yield was less, but they were a hit. People seemed to be excited about the better flavor.”

Ultimately, Jebbia doubts Gathering Together will switch over to dry farming on a farm-wide scale, but, she said: “It is nice to know that you can grow some stuff without irrigation if you have to. And there might be a niche for a better tasting vegetable grown under dry farming.”

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