Annual drought has been afflicting wider swaths of the United States with each passing year. While drought stress management has helped to overcome some of the hurdles caused by low precipitation and high-pressure systems, farmers will need to explore every technique at their disposal to keep up yields without exhausting the soil.
With livelihoods threatened, some farmers are exploring methods like dry farming to help them regain some profitability under new climate conditions. Before we look at dry farming innovations today, it helps to explore the ways in which arid or semi-arid regions were farmed before, and despite the introduction of widespread irrigation. Here’s what you need to know about the world’s dry farming history.
For millennia, weather in the Mediterranean has been characterized by long-stretches of low precipitation in the dry summer months between each wet season. For the Greeks, irregular rainfall and highly variable soil conditions resulted in periodic crop failure for anything ill-suited to their semi-arid climate. In The Georgics, the poet Virgil recommended that Romans till the land three to four times a year, presumably to work the soil and increase water absorption.
Combining tillage and surface protection allowed the Greeks, Romans and other Mediterranean societies to conserve enough moisture during the dry season to grow ample amounts of drought-resistant varietals like wheat, olives and grapes. That tradition continues for some staple crops. In fact, it is illegal to irrigate wine grapes in certain parts of Italy, Spain and France under the assertion that the extra water dilutes the quality of the grapes.
Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico
Even before climate change ratcheted up the average annual temperature in the Southwestern U.S., the deserts of New Mexico were known for their arid growing environment. However, the Zuni people have managed to farm in the region for 3,000 to 4,000 years with reliable success. Yes, some of their crops were irrigated, but there is an enduring tradition of dry farming within the region as well.
Using a technique known as waffle gardens, the Zuni Pueblo have been able to conserve water through extended periods of low precipitation. Waffle gardens consist of a sunken bed, just below ground level, that is surrounded by raised earthen mounds that allow water to seep into the depression. Evaporation is prevented through the lower ground level as well as through cover provided by rock or soil mulching.
As a result, the Zuni Pueblo have been able to grow everything from chilis to the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) all in the same cell during dry seasons or even drought years.
The Great Plains
Applying dry farming techniques is not a cure-all. Unchecked tillage has been criticized for the way in which it disrupts existing soil structures, which can result in topsoil erosion during extreme conditions. The Dust Bowl that swept across the Great Plains is a prime example of how, without the proper forethought and expertise, these techniques can go wrong.
Tillage practices that broke up clods and prepared seedbeds combined with the elimination of native grasslands and exhaustive farming practices eroded the topsoil. With permissive U.S. land policies and poor sustainable stewardship, once drought struck the Great Plains, there was little resistance preventing the soil from being swept up into massive dust clouds during high winds, rolling across and ruining struggling farms.
Fortunately, the U.S. response factored in less disruptive tillage approaches as well as long-term thinking that prevented similar issues during subsequent droughts.
Finding the Right Sustainable Practices
As with all farming practices, it’s important to weigh the long-term results with the impact upon the soil itself. Though many traditional farmers might not have thought in these terms, sustainable agriculture was the norm when people were close to and reliant upon the land. Now that we’re experiencing extreme weather conditions, it’s time to revisit those same beliefs.
Using dry-farming techniques with traditional methods can help modern farmers, but it’s also important to incorporate the science we’ve learned along the way to maximize yields. For farmers that are looking for more of a balance, our next blog will discuss how modern innovations and inputs can integrate with deep-rooted tradition to stay competitive in changing climate conditions.
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