Trying it dry: Farming without water makes sense for farmer and crop


Issue Date: September 20, 2006
Ching Lee

Yolo County farmer Casey Hoppin, shown with his thriving melon crop, finds that dry farming not only saves water but also controls weeds.

For a farmer, Casey Hoppin doesn't stress too much about water, not even during scorching temperatures this summer when many of the state's crops and livestock were taking a beating from the long heat wave.

Hoppin grows a variety of melons in Knights Landing, Yolo County. The high water table in that area allows him to use a method known as dry farming, which not only saves water but also controls weeds.

The concept of dry farming may sound like an oxymoron but is nothing new. Farmers in arid and semi-arid regions have been farming without irrigation for years by planting drought-resistant crops such as wheat, alfalfa and corn. Typically, dry farmland is on the edges of the valley or at higher elevations, where crops can take advantage of the higher precipitation and milder summers.

In drier years, Hoppin must pre-irrigate in the spring by flooding the ground before planting to ensure enough moisture throughout the growing season. This year, that was not necessary because Mother Nature was more than generous with her spring rains.

"Once we get the moisture in the ground, the idea is to keep it there," said Hoppin, who grows his melons for Fisher Ranches in Blythe.

The key is to keep the top of the ground well cultivated and loose, which protects the natural moisture of the soil from evaporation. The top layer of soil is dry enough that no weeds will grow, so no herbicides are needed. The root system of the melons then does all the work by "chasing the moisture," Hoppin said. The result is higher sugar content and better quality melons.

"On heavy ground like this, by not irrigating, it almost grows a better crop," he said. "When we grow the cantaloupes, if we irrigated them, they wouldn't have the same flavor. They'd make a lot of melons, but they'd be a lot less flavorful."

Although Hoppin has been growing melons in the Knights Landing location for the past three years, he said his family has been dry farming melons in Northern California for more than 15 years.

"Down south, they irrigate two to three times," he said. "Even up here on the wrong kind of ground, you have to irrigate. But if you can do a good job without irrigating, it makes a lot more sense."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.