Dry Farming Oregon

Author: Chloe Shaughnessy in partnership with Celebrate OregonAgriculture

Publish Date: Fall 2016

Oregon State University is known for its College of Agricultural Sciences. The school offers 25 Major and Minor options that include but are not limited to Botany, Animal Sciences, and even Fermentation Sciences for you beer lovers out there. The OSU Extension Service Small Farms Program is one of many things that go on out there and is nestled in the heart of Corvallis’ thousands of acres of farmlands. With great farmers markets and what seems like a farm stand on every corner, it would be hard to miss the obvious love affair that this town has with agriculture. In Corvallis, you are constantly surrounded by fields growing some kind of delicious crop, but not all the crop fields are created equal. Some of these fields are doing things a bit differently and there are people working behind the scenes to make sure you hear all about what they’ve been up to. Meet Amy Garrett. 

Garrett is an Assistant Professor of Practice with the OSU Extension Service Small Farms Program and is dedicated to spreading awareness about dry farming and expanding our drought mitigation toolbox. She is constantly learning and redistributing information about dry farming and this year she founded a small group dedicated to just that. The Dry Farming Collaborative is a group of growers, extension educators, plant breeders, and agricultural professionals partnering to increase knowledge and awareness of dry farming management practices with a hands-on participatory approach. Garrett says, “Everyone is in a different situation. Some are growing on a quarter acre, some on an acre, and some are farming on much more. So there are a bunch of different scales of farms in our area. Along with those variables there comes a large variety of soil types.” This all means that different things are going to work for different farmers. Garrett’s hope is, “that we work together to expand our drought mitigation toolbox and co-create the future of how we manage water on our farms.” So far, the Dry Farming Collaborative includes members from all over Oregon, along with some members from Washington and California. The group is continuing to grow and people are continuing to ask rather specific questions that nobody has the answers to yet.

Dry farming is a technique of farming that could work for many growers in the Willamette Valley, as long as the conditions are right. The basics to understand are that dry farming utilizes the residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season instead of depending on irrigation. Dry farmers work to conserve soil moisture for use by crops in the dry season. Here in the Willamette Valley, we get 40+ inches of rainfall in our wet winters, although in different parts of the state that varies quite a bit. Many soils in the Willamette Valley are deep and have high clay content which helps it to hold in a higher volume of water. Garrett informed me that there are many misconceptions about dry farming.

So, here are the facts.

Dry farming does not mean:

  • You just cut back on watering
  • Everyone can and should dry farm
  • You can plant anything
  • Rain is a dry farmers friend
  • Dry Farming is an exact science

Dry Farming does account for:

  • Timing of soil prep
  • Not watering at all
  • Planting Technique (spacing and depth)
  • Crop selection
  • Being on land that is suited for this farming style

Although the practice of dry farming is nothing new, the science behind it is just beginning to be developed for fruit and vegetable crops. Garrett says, “Soon we’ll start having more data and numbers to back up what we have been hypothesizing about dry farming. We have been wanting to develop a decision-making tool that will help people new to dry farming access whether or not they can even use this technique.” This will start with an introductory extension publication on dry farming and may eventually be web-based decision-making tool. The farmers hosting dry farming trials this year are sharing experiences and results via the Dry Farming Collaborative Facebook group and email list. Garrett sees this as a great means to get the conversation going and facilitate farmer-to-farmer information sharing. Garrett stated, “This practice is neither black and white nor cut and dry. So being able to have a place where people who are experimenting with this technique can share their information, gives everyone more answers than if they had just been trying it on their own.”

As of right now, we are already experiencing some of the side effects that come with having decreased levels of water in the Willamette Valley. The scientists don’t seem to think that this will just be a steady decrease in water, but that rather we will experience larger peaks and troughs as a result of our climate’s weather. Last year even some farmers with senior water rights had their water supplies cut off in mid-July. We don’t yet know exactly what is going to happen but, what we do know is that as a society are going to have to figure out what we want to do. Questions like, “How are we going to live with lower levels of water?” and, “what part should each of us play in becoming more sustainable?” will be questions well worth asking. This is why the OSU Extension Service Small Farms Program, Dry Farming Collaborative, and others like it are so essential to the welfare of our state’s agriculture. Along with providing a place to share best practices, the OSU Small Farms Program hosts various Dry Farming Field Days where participants can see dry-farmed crops in the ground, do side-by-side taste comparisons of dry farmed and irrigated crops, learn about dry farming management practices that help to conserve soil moisture, as well as talk to soil scientists and experienced dry farmers. There are about 20 growers in the Dry Farming Collaborative that are hosting dry farming trials this year and they will be convening this winter to share their results and future directions for this participatory research project. The Dry Farming Collaborative will be presenting at multiple farm conferences this winter including the Oregon Small Farms Conference. If you are interested in learning more or being involved with The Dry Farming Collaborative please ask to join their Facebook group or visit: http://smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/dry-farming demonstration.