Dry farming gains traction in Northwest with Extension collaboration

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With drought a continuing threat in Oregon, the ages-old but rare practice of dry farming is gaining traction and the Oregon State University’s Extension Service and Department of Horticulture are leading the way.

Dry farming is exactly as it sounds – growing crops with no irrigation. Dry-farmed plants don’t go thirsty, though. Crops typically go in the ground early when there’s still plenty of moisture in the soil to get plants established. When planting, farmers compress the soil surrounding seeds and transplants to start capillary action, lifting soil moisture to the surface to germinate seeds and encourage roots. As the season wears on, roots stretch deep – tomatoes can put roots down more than 5 feet to harvest the receding water.

“Dry farming seemed like a radical idea when I started this work,” said Amy Garrett, associate professor of practice with the OSU Extension Small Farms Program and founder of the dry farming research program. “But after six years of demonstrations, participatory research and drought, there is a growing interest and more farmers are excited to try dry farming. They have issues with water availability and can see the potential.”

People dry farm for a variety of reasons. Climate resilience is near the top, Garrett said, with the others being decreased water usage, improved flavor and storability and using less inputs like labor and irrigation. Not least of all, farmers are interested in conserving resources for future generations.

Oregon droughts translate into decreased summer water availability and wells going dry, Garrett said. With disappearing water comes more interest in farming without irrigation. As temperatures increase there’s reduced snowpack that melts earlier and leaves less water overall and less during the growing season.

Because of that, Joey Merback dry farms corn, beans, potatoes, kale and tomatoes on his homestead north of Corvallis.

“Summers are only going to get hotter and drier,” said Merback, who attended the 2021 OSU dry farming field day where researchers shared their insights. “I don’t have the capacity to water on a well.”

Dry farming can be tricky, though. Dry-farmed crops grow on stored water. The deep silt loams in the Willamette Valley store water extremely well. But some sites – sandy, rocky or shallow soils –aren’t suitable for dry farming, said Alex Stone, an Extension specialist in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Vegetable Cropping Systems Program and associate professor in the Department of Horticulture. Microclimates need to be taken into consideration, though they can be altered with wind breaks and shading. Whether it would work to grow plants in high tunnels with shade cloth or to grow corn next to crops to control shade and wind hasn’t been determined yet. That’s research for another year.

Stone, who has led the tomato research for five years, funded by the U.S, Department of Agriculture Western SARE program, has another variable to consider, unusually high temperatures.The heatwave that struck the Pacific Northwest this past summer brought record-breaking triple-digit temperatures to much of the Willamette and Rogue valleys and beyond.

“Some tomatoes didn’t perform well in this year’s heat, but some can take that kind of weather,” Stone said “It’s astonishing really.”

Stone planted five plants of more than 150 varieties in 2020 and 2021 to determine which produce the best under dry-farming practices. She’s still evaluating them, but found grafted tomatoes, when attached to high-performing dry-farm rootstock, performed well. Grafted tomatoes, which are desirable varieties attached to the roots of varieties with very high vigor and extensive root systems, reduced the serious physiological disorder of blossom end rot almost entirely.

Around the world, tomatoes and melons are typically grafted to improve their resistance to soilborne diseases. There hasn’t been much work on grafting to improve drought resistance, but interest and research, which has been lacking, is growing,

“This is the second year of data with grafted plants,” Stone said. “They show a huge amount of promise. Grafting is transformational.”

To date only one Oregon wholesale nursery – Log House Plants – sells grafted plants, but Stone said there will be more when there’s a bigger market.

In addition to Stone’s tomato trials, the dry farming program, with participation from multiple Willamette Valley farmers, looked at corn, beans, potatoes, melons and soil conditions.

“We feel as people become more concerned about climate change and learn about the benefits of dry farming, consumers will be more likely to buy dry-farmed produce to be environmentally appropriate,” Garrett said. “But they have to know about it first.”

Leading the way in educating the public are 11 farmers in Oregon, Washington and California who are marking their dry-farmed produce with the “Dry Farmed” label and using marketing materials developed by the Dry Farming Institute, a nonprofit organization that blossomed out of the Dry Farming Collaborative in 2019. The collaborative is a group of farmers, Extension educators, plant breeders and agricultural professionals partnering to increase knowledge and awareness of dry farming management practices with a hands-on approach. With the institute’s Facebook page sitting at almost 1,400 followers, word is traveling.

As climate change continues to dry up water sources, more and more farmers are sure to jump on board with dry farming.

“Irrigation costs are high, including capital, energy,” Stone said. “Growing crops without irrigation – if we can identify successful sites, crops, varieties and production strategies – would be a farmer’s paradise.”

Geraldine Morod, one of 60 people to attend the 2021 field day, might be swayed.

“We’re on a well and it went dry this year,” Geraldine Morod said,. “We’re looking for alternatives. This is worth learning about.”

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