If I had tried I couldn’t have planned a greater contrast between where I’ve been and where I am.
In the BC Interior, rain clouds have been hanging low for weeks, alternating intermittently and steadily dumping sheets of rain. The world is grey and green, mountains disappear beyond treeline, moods are gloomy as hay crops grow soggy and fall over.
In California, pale tan hills scorch under a sizzling blue sky. The slow buzz of cicadas stings ears amid the crunch of parched vegetation underfoot.
I am working on a project I believe in both fervently and with trepidation, with a small and dedicated team of individuals experienced, trained and educated in regenerative agriculture, business, and the food industry. We are trying to create a model for dry-farmed agriculture in the West, south of the El Nino storm fronts that swept rain and replenished reservoirs and snowed the slopes of northern California – but left the southern half dragging on into another year of extreme megadrought. There are no more words to extend that definition, aside, perhaps, from “complete”, reserved for the coming year when no rain falls at all.
I am not hopeless, but only very cautiously optimistic. We are not reinventing the wheel. We are borrowing, asking for and reframing information from drought-ravaged areas around the world: what’s worked? What has been tested over centuries? What can we not afford to not try? What will enable us to work on this margin, this honed knife-edge of survival, to re-create a food system predicated on fossilized water and an assumption of limitless supply at minimal cost?
Dry farming entails what it sounds like: farming without water. To be fair, it means farming without additional water – you work with what you get, falling from the sky, either as rain or fog. Two hundred miles north of our site, along the sunny, foggy central coast, farms are beginning to catch onto dry farming, and flourishing even under minimal conditions. They are using techniques that include pasture cropping, minimal irrigation on captured rainwater, soil water storage by shaping the land to catch and hold water, and a special type of subsoiling and design that originated in Australia, called keyline. There are others. Several are finding that their dry-farmed tomatoes are fetching premium prices given that the stress of going dry kicks the plants into sugar-producing overdrive, growing tomatoes that explode with flavour. In the Netherlands, at Wageningen University and on the experimental Texel Salt Farm on Texel Island, drought conditions driven by the highly saline soil creates “the sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted”, in addition to potatoes, tomatoes, lettuces and other staple crops. Staple, too, in California’s Central Valley, where producers and researchers alike are scrambling to find solutions to the drought. These aren’t GMO varieties, either, but varieties selected through breeding programs, where skilled plant breeders select from as many as hundreds of varieties to find the ones that produce the best under the most saline conditions. So far, it’s working. In Pakistan, at a similar trial led by the Dutch research teams, they’re producing potatoes at 50% of normal average production levels – but using no irrigation water to do it. With several million hectares currently affected by drought and salinization stress, that’s a big deal.