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Dry Farming Techniques in the Maritime Pacific Northwest

Farmers have been adapting to climatic conditions for centuries often using irrigation as an adaptation tool. In the Northwest climate models project warmer and slightly drier summers and a reduction in summer water availability due to increasing winter temperatures that will lead to more precipitation in the form of rain rather than snow, reducing snowpack. Thus, climate change may limit irrigation as a viable adaptation tool for many western producers. Producers had a glimpse of future growing conditions and water availability during the 2015 drought in the Northwest, which resulted in regional water cutbacks. Because western water law assigns priority based on seniority, producers with junior water rights are more likely to be affected by water shortages than senior water rights holders.

Dry farming in western Oregon and Washington can help producers adapt and diversify in response to water availability and changes in climate. It is especially useful for producers who have little or no access to irrigation water. Dry farming techniques include management practices and crop varieties that make use of residual soil moisture during droughts and the dry summer season in the Northwest. There is a shortage of research on the influence of soil types or the effect of management practices on quality and productivity of agricultural products under non-irrigated conditions. In response, the USDA Northwest Climate Hub collaborated with Oregon State University Extension Service’s Small Farms Program and the Dry Farming Collaborative (DFC) to better understand effective dry farming practices. The collaboration consists of farmers, extension educators, plant breeders, and other agricultural professionals.

One goal of the Dry Farming Collaborative is to understand the impact climate change will have on Northwestern agricultural operations. The second objective is to determine how dry farming methods can mitigate these impacts in water-limited regions (or situations i.e. junior water rights holders during a drought). A third objective is to facilitate farmer-to-farmer information sharing within the Dry Farming Collaborative, and to partner with scientists in order to improve communication about dry farming techniques and its benefits. Advantages include the reduced water costs, as well as some potentially unexpected benefits of water stress (i.e. increase flavor). Under the right circumstances, some crops, such as tomatoes and grapes, actually increase in flavor from water deficits.

A major outcome of the project is the development of a “how-to” guide for participatory climate adaptation research projects. To create this guide, data are being collected from growers who have signed up to host multi-year dry farming variety trials. The trials cover a wide range of geographic regions, from coast to valley, in western Oregon and Washington. The overarching goal is to collect data from dry farming trials over a wide range of geographic conditions west of the Cascades. Data being collected at demonstration sites include:

  • management practices and soil preparation activities
  • soil testing
  • crops and varieties planted
  • planting date(s) and density
  • harvest date(s) and yields
  • field notes on pests, disease, and weeds
  • depth of the water table
  • sensory evaluation for marketability (i.e. color, texture, sweetness)

A data repository is being developed to facilitate coproduction of scientific knowledge and decision support. The data repository will be used to archive and interpret the results of the participatory variety and breeding trials. This information will then be shared through a variety of communication channels and extension events.   

The integration of growers, Extension agents, and researchers facilitates dynamic flow of information so that details regarding maturation, pests, disease, and the variety trials collected by the Dry Farming Collaborative can easily be shared. The results will also be used to improve crop growing-degree-day models and pest forecasting models for Extension agents and farmers to help inform planting decisions for subsequent years.

 Many of the project outcomes, along with additional dry farming resources are linked below:

Videos and Webinars

  • A video highlighting dry farming in the Pacific Northwest:
  • Video: Adapting to a Changing Climate: Conserving Water with Dry Farming Management Practices (local farmer perspective on water and dry farming)
  • Video: Dry Farming Collaborative: Initial Findings from Qualitative Interviews (initial findings from interviews with the Dry Farming Collaborative about reasons for joining, benefits, and feedback on functionality.)
  • Video: Participatory Plant Breeding for Dry Farmed Systems (session on selective breeding strategies, examples, lessons learned, and resources)
  • A webinar on dry farming techniques: Dry Farming Organic Vegetables

    Additional information on dry farming and the Dry Farming Collaborative is available on the Dry Farming website's "resources" tab, found here