When in drought: the California farmers who don’t water their harvests

Dry farming forgoes modern irrigation and, farmers tell, renders much tastier harvests. In a drought-stricken country, should others follow suit?

Theres something different about Will Bucklins grape vines. At first its hard to notification, but a drive through northern Californias Sonoma Valley, past waves of green, manicured vineyards, builds it clear. The black ribbon of PVC irrigation pipe that typically threads the vines is curiously absent here because Will doesnt water his crops.

Bucklins Old Hill Ranch, purchased by his stepfather Otto Teller in 1980, claims to be the oldest-rooted vineyard in the area. Teller fell in love with the vineyard because it was one of the few that still dry-farmed. Dry farming is a method that bypasses artificial irrigation, relying instead on seasonal rainfall and running the soil in such a way that it holds on to water for the drier months.

Is it possible to grow healthy grapes without watering them? Actually, if conditions are right, he says, its possible to grow even better ones. Less water entails smaller, more intensely flavoured grapes with a higher skin-to-fruit ratio. Other harvests tomatoes, potatoes, squash, corn, apples, even marijuana can be dry-farmed too, with similarly intensified results.

The Mediterranean climate of Californias coastal regions, particularly those to the north, is ideally suited to dry farming. Mornings are cool, afternoons warm, and the rains come every winter. Until the second half of the last century, dry farming was actually the norm here and still is throughout much of Europe.

The hardest part about dry farming is actually convincing people it works, Bucklin says. But in places like Spain, France and Italy, pretty much everybody dry-farms because it builds better wine. Irrigation has even been banned in parts of Europe to preserve the quality of certain grape assortments. But in California, where irrigation is now the norm, dry farming has become a forgotten art.

Dry-farmed
Dry-farmed quinoa growing at the New family farm in Sebastopol, California. Photograph: Michelle Davidoff/ Handout

Its been more than two years since Californias governor, Jerry Brown, proclaimed the drought a country of emergency. How unprecedented this drought is depends on who you ask, and how they measure it. There is broad consensus that it is the worst in centuries; some tell in more than a millennium.

Since then, Californians in urban areas must to greatly reduce their water use. The mandate to cut back by 25% has significantly been met, and from time to time exceeded, by a population that prides itself on eco-consciousness. Strict restraints on personal water intake, and drought shaming of those who continue to waste, have attracted headlines.

Yet for agriculture, which accounts for 80% of the states human water use, there is no parallel mandate. Its a reality that has raised eyebrows. Thats not to say the industry isnt under scrutiny. In 2014, for the first time in its history, the state passed groundwater statutes that will monitor how farmers use rapidly diminishing subterranean reserves. But there is currently no statewide move to promote alternative methods of irrigation such a dry agriculture. As Jeanine Jones of the California department of water says: Thats a choice that growers make. Its on their side of the issue.

Will
Will Bucklin at his dry-farmed vineyard Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley. Photograph: Charlotte Simmonds for the Guardian

No dry farmer I fulfilled calls it a panacea for the states water crisis. But they do lament the loss of an intimate, intuitive style of agriculture that has been overtaken by another: one that privileges yield over quality, and mass management over a farmers care and attention.

Dry farming surely requires a special define of steps. The cultivation of a dust mulch, a layer of tilled topsoil that seals in moisture to prevent it evaporating from around the plants roots, is one example. Dry-farmed vines take longer to establish, and while they may live longer they also yield less, a proposition unlikely to appeal to everyone. But the argument of quality is one that dry farmers return to in their defense.

I wouldnt dry-farm unless it was worth it, if I didnt think it made better wine, Bucklin says.

One reason for improved flavor is that dry-farmed vines put down deeper roots; they quite literally go mining for water. Irrigated vines have roots that live in the top 20 or 30 inches of clay. Dry-farm vines can have root systems as deep as 20 to 30 feet, Bucklin says.

Deep-root systems render grapes that are more characteristic of the land theyre grown on. Winemakers call this terroir, and its the thing that sets fruit juice apart from the stuff that blows your mind.

Irrigation will give you good grapes, but they tend not to be unique, Bucklin says. They dont have any soul.

Dry-farmed
Dry-farmed vines at Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley. Photo: Will Bucklin for the Guardian

The Central Valley is largely inhospitable to dry farming. In this industrious backbone of the state, which alone produces a one-quarter of the nations food and 40% of its fruits and nuts, temperatures are too high, the rainfall too low, the farms too large. Yet its in the nearby Cuyama Valley where Steve Gliessman and his wife Robbie have established Condors Hope, a five-acre farm construction dry-farmed wines and olive oil.

Gliessman is one of Californias foremost dry-farming experts and a former prof of agroecology at UC Santa Cruz. Gliessman maintains many harvests now dependent on irrigation dont genuinely need it.

He mentions almonds, the states second most valuable crop. Fairly or unfairly, almonds have become shorthand for water inefficiency( the dinner party line goes that it takes a gallon of water to make one almond in California ).

Almonds are traditionally a dry-farmed harvest that does not need irrigation, Gliessman says. There are dry-farmed almond orchards in southern Spain that are a couple hundred years old. But when youve got 500, a thousand acres, you dont have much opportunity to be a good steward of your land. You have to build big decisions in a hurry.

What we learn from a system like dry farming is that you can farm from limited water, he continues. But of course modern farming looks for maximum yield no matter what you have to put in. And in the case of California, that input is water.

While new groundwater regulations may be welcome, Gliessman points out they will take years to come into consequence. The country has indeed devoted itself a generous deadline of 2040 to achieve a fully sustainable groundwater management system, with the possibility to pushing that back even further.

Meanwhile, its business as usual; drill as deep as you can and get as much out while you are able to, he says. But at what expense? Groundwater is not an unlimited resource. And we have been depicting down on centuries of accumulation. Pretty soon those systems are not going to be able to provide for us.

Steve
Steve Gliessman and his wife Robbie Jaffe, son Erin, his wife Oriana, and Mateo at the Westside farmers market in Santa Cruz. Photo: Politenes of Steve Gliessman/ Handout

I meet farmer Ryan Power on his land in late April, before the start of the growing season. He and childhood friend Adam Davidoff, who operate the New Family Farm, were students under Gliessman at Santa Cruz and swear by trenching the PVC pipes.

I had one journalist who came here and tried our tomatoes, and he virtually shit his britches, Power giggles. Severely, he couldnt talk for a while. When you think about irrigation as watering the tomato down, dry farming begin to induces sense to people. Would you instead have a plant that gives you more watery tomatoes, or less, absurdly tasty ones?

Power currently dry-farms about half his crops, including tomatoes, squash, potatoes and pinto beans. He is especially enthusiastic about the farms most recent experiment: dry-farmed quinoa. Its a grain with huge global demand that requires little water to grow and is not widely farmed in the US.

Last year we grew over a ton of quinoa per acre without a single fell of water, during the worst drought in 600 years, he says. This is a staple crop , not a luxury harvest like wine. Im really excited about the potential.

Condors
Condors Hope dry-farmed vineyard in Cuyama Valley, California. Photograph: Robbie Jaffe

Back at Old Hill Ranch, Bucklin swills his glass and takes a sip of his wine. He describes the taste as nearly minty. Its true the flavor is both refreshing and deep; lamb and mint sauce springs to mind.

Wills neighbours, also winemakers, are irrigators. Its a reality that frustrates him, as it did his stepfather before. Otto always used to say, these goddamns vineyards are sucking up all the water.

Can Bucklin see a future in which his style of running sways back into favor? Human memory is very short, and very adaptable, he tells. We lived under this dry agriculture idea for centuries, and its only during the last 50 or so years that weve changed.

People look at our vines and say how do you survive? They think were crazy. But its really not that complicated. We stimulate plenty of money and plenty of wine, and I suppose our wine is fairly damn good too. I think were doing the right thing.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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