Dry Farming- Going Back to Our Roots For a Climate Future

By Emily Dick, Washington Water Trust

Black Sheep Family Farms, Port Orchard

Washington State is perceived as a rain-soaked land, befitting the nickname Evergreen State, but with a virtual statewide drought this summer and many areas already water limited, farmers are looking for ways to deal with water shortage. A traditional method of farming – dry farming – does just that.

Dry farming is the practice of irrigating once or not at all. It may sound impossible, but this is actually a traditional method of farming. Before sprinklers and hoses moved our water, we relied on water held in the soil, the water table, and delivered by rainfall. Dry farming is practiced around the globe in a variety of climates, even in arid regions such as the deserts of Arizona where Navajo peoples grow dry farmed corn as they have for thousands of years. 

There is a long history in our state of dry farming, particularly in the rolling hills of wheat and grain in the Palouse region of southeastern Washington. Dry farming is also increasingly practiced across multiple climates throughout the state to produce flavorful crops like tomatoes, squash, potatoes, beans, herbs and fruits. Most areas of Washington are completely “allocated,” meaning there is no water available for new uses, after considering all the allowed existing uses and any protections for minimum river levels. 

Given these limits, new farmers look to dry farming as a resilient way to begin or grow their operations with limited or no water supply. Even established and generational farms have seen water cutoff early in the year due to drought, and some farmers utilize dry farming to free up the limited water they have on the crops that need it the most. 

When Anthony Reyes started as the farm operations lead in June of 2019 at Woodinville’s 21 Acres, the farm grew dry farmed produce on less than an acre of land. Since then, the center has expanded production to over four acres. After working in Santa Cruz where the practice of dry-farming was popularized, Reyes says there is a drive to implement the same practice in Washington. You can learn more about 21 Acres and their dry farming practices here

Sometimes dry farming occurs on “accident” just by forgetting to water an area or observing how a drier area produces with limited water, says Heather Hamilton of Black Sheep Family Farms in Port Orchard. “We have indigenous plants, like blackberries and blackberries which are naturally dry farmed. We decided to plant tomatoes with them and they’ve done really well. Our farm is less than an acre and we try to use all available space including under trees, which naturally lend themselves to dry farming because there’s more protection from the sun.”

However a farmer arrives at it, dry farming results in saved water for our rivers, farms and people.

Farm Operations Lead Anthony Reyes tends to dry-farmed tomatoes.
21 Acres Woodinville

Along with saving water, dry farmed crops have been found to be more flavorful in sensory studies by Oregon State University which is also home to the Dry Farming Collaborative. According to their studies, it has been shown that with less “dilution” from watering, flavor is more dominant. This is not an uncommon recognition – especially in the wine industry. In some wine-making regions of France, it is illegal to water the grapes because it changes the flavor! The same flavor recognition is growing for commonly dry farmed produce like tomatoes, corn, potatoes, squash, beans, and melon.

With farmers in Washington state already facing water shortages, and with droughts increasing, many are faced with the choice of growing with less water or not growing at all. Buying dry farmed food not only gets you delicious local food, but it supports farms practicing this water resilient farming method.

To experience dry farmed products for yourself, look for produce labeled with Dry Farmed logo below or find your local dry farmers on Eat Local First here. To learn more about dry farming, visit the Culinary Breeding Network or Dry Farming Collaborative.

This blog post was made possible with Regional Food System grant funding from the King Conservation Districta natural resources assistance agency authorized by Washington State and guided by the Washington State Conservation Commission.