Author: Amy Garrett, Small Farms Program, Oregon
State University Extension Service 

Publish Date: Summer 2018

As the Dry Farming Collaborative (DFC) expands and interest in dry farming grows throughout the maritime Pacific Northwest and beyond, many questions arise. Just for starters:

  • What crop varietals do well dry farmed in our region?
  • How do we assess and select a site suitable for dry farming?
  • Can fungal inoculants enhance drought tolerance?
  • How can other researchers increase the participation and collaborative nature of applied research in the field of agriculture and horticulture?
There are multiple research projects working with the DFC this year addressing these very questions, and more than 30 sites throughout western Oregon and Washington hosting dry farming trials. The DFC 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. Growers involved decided this past winter how much space they would like to allocate to dry farming and which projects they would like to be a part of. Here are descriptions of the four research projects engaged with the group this year. 

DFC Varietal Trials: 

This effort is funded in part by the USDA Northwest Climate Hub (2017-2019). Several varieties of six different crops that had some history of being dry farmed were selected with the DFC. Thirty growers selected which crop varietals (tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, melons and zucchini) they wanted to grow replicates of, and a main trial with three replicates of each variety was established at an OSU research farm site. Some of the following data is being collected by growers over the course of this study such as: soil preparation activities, crops, varieties, planting date(s), planting density, harvest date(s), yield, sensory evaluation (color, texture, sweetness), and field notes (pests, disease, weeds). 5’ soil cores are being pulled at each site and classified by Certified Professional Soil Classifier/Soil Scientist Andy Gallagher of Red Hill Soils. 

Participatory Research Methods 

Semi-structured interviews, also funded by the USDA Northwest Climate Hub (2018), will be conducted to inform our understanding of participatory research methods so as to provide scholarly information for others looking to do similar kinds of applied agricultural research. DFC members interested in participating in these conversations are contacting Gabrielle Roesch-McNally (USDA Northwest Climate Hub Fellow) and being interviewed this summer. Graduate student research assistant, Melissa Parks, will be assisting in setting up and conducting these interviews. The target demographic is adult farmers (>18 years old) who have been involved, in some capacity, with the dry farming research and collaborative work that OSU Extension Small Farms Program has been leading. These interviews will be intended to deepen our understanding of how to increase the  participation and collaborative nature of applied research in the field of agriculture and horticulture. 

Fungal Inoculant Study: 

Thirteen DFC sites are participating in a study on the use of fungal seed inoculants to improve dry farmed crop performance, led by OSU Postdoc Lucas Nebert, and funded by USDA AFRI (2018-2020). We will be testing a commercially available fungal seed treatment called BioEnsure, which has been shown to improve drought tolerance in various crops. The fungus is naturally found living inside plants (known as an endophyte), and is registered organic by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). This year, we will be trialing the inoculant in corn, beans, winter squash and tomatoes. Participating DFC members will trial the inoculant in at least one variety of corn, bean, squash, and tomato, providing at least two adjacent 100 sq ft plots for each variety for a control vs. inoculant comparison (though replication of both control and inoculant is encouraged), and are asked to measure yield. 

Dryland Squash and Tomato Production Project: 

This project is funded by the USDA Risk Management Education Partnerships Program (2017-2018). The primary objectives are: 

  • To determine if soil series descriptions and plant available water data can be used to predict site suitability for dryland tomato and squash production.
  • To assess dryland yields of Winter Sweet and North Georgia Candy Roaster winter squash and Early Girl tomatoes across 30 sites

The varieties selected were shown in 2016 and 2017 trials to be productive when grown under dryland conditions. The following assessments will be made:

  • Soil series: Project staff will collect 1-2 five foot soil cores per site and project soil taxonomist, Andy Gallagher (Red Hill Soils) will describe the soil series cores.
  • Plant available water: Watermark sensors were installed at 15, 27, 39 and 51 inch depths within project plots. Project staff will use handheld readers to read sensors at least twice per month from planting to harvest. 

These research projects are just brushing the surface in deepening our understanding of dry farming. There are many lessons to learn from countries with drier climates and a long list of topics yet to explore such as: best practices for dry farmed orchard systems, development of dry farmed crop varietals for our bioregion, minimal and no-till strategies for organic dryland farming, nutrient management for dry farmed vegetables, and optimal planting density for various dry farmed crops, just to name a few. 

For more information on the OSU Dry Farming Project visit: http://smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/dryfarm/dry-farming-project