SACRAMENTO — A centuries-old technique called dry farming once the order of the day in the Central Valley is once again drawing the interest of some of the region's farmers.
The technique is as simple as it is risky. Dry farming relies solely on rainwater to keep crops growing throughout a dry season.
Used for centuries in the Mediterranean region to grow crops such as olives and grapes, the technique is not for the faint of heart. A year such as this, with a dry winter, can devastate crop output and put an onerous dent in a farmer's wallet.
"Dry farming would be a hard life because you're at the whim of the rains," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis. "It would have to be a fairly small-scale farm, and in some cases, it would be a good road to poverty."
Yet dry farming has its adherents. Many are small farmers and vintners who lack irrigation water or believe that dry farming produces better tasting fruits and vegetables.
"I think people are interested in the idea," said David Runsten, policy director at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
The idea does not appear to be catching on in Stanislaus County, said Roger Duncan, a farm adviser specializing in almonds, grapes and several other fruits for the UC Cooperative Extension.
He said wine-grape growers might withhold irrigation early in the growing season to control leaf growth and improve fruit quality, but water is still needed later on.
Duncan noted that the valley in the 19th century was widely planted with wheat that relied on rainfall. The boom ended when irrigation allowed diverse fruits, vegetables and other crops to be grown.
Runsten recently promoted dry farming to a consortium of Amador County and Lodi farmers. "We're promoting it because we think it makes for better wine," he said.
But sustaining the viability of farms is also an issue. Runsten cited a CAFF study that found that the 250-acre Frog's Leap vineyard in the Napa Valley conserved roughly 64,000 gallons of water per acre through dry farming each year.
"We're pumping a bunch of groundwater to produce cheap wine in California right now," Runsten said. "I don't know if that's sustainable."
A recently released study from researchers at the University of Texas warns that the current depletion rate of the Central Valley aquifer, the large source of underground water farmers use for irrigation, is unsustainable even when wet years follow dry ones.
Currently, nearly half a million acres of land are devoted to wine grapes in California. Of those, about 2,000 acres are dry-farmed; the rest are drip irrigated, said Runsten.
Because dry-farmed fruits and vegetables need more space between each tree, it can prove a costly endeavor.
However, such spacing means roots spread out farther, which results in healthier trees and vines as well as more intense flavor, said Capay Valley farmer Jeff Maine.
He said he saw the superiority of dry-farmed fruit in a 100-year-old heirloom apricot orchard alongside Putah Creek, just west of Winters, between 2003 and 2010.
"The dry-farmed stuff has a whole different flavor," said Maine, who co-owns the farm, Good Humus Produce, with wife Anne Maine. "People really respond to the traditional aspects of it."
The popularity of Maine's apricots was not lost on Sacramento Food Co-op general manager Paul Cultrera, whose store sold them.
"Annie and Jeff's apricots are worth any price," said Cultrera. "They're that good, and that much better than whatever others we sell."
The store expects to sell potatoes and tomatoes that come from farms using the dry farming method, said Kerri Williams, produce manager at the co-op.
The co-op sold the tomatoes last year and will offer them again in late summer. "The tomatoes were very popular. Once people tasted them, they didn't care what they cost," said Williams.
Typically, dry-farmed fruit is much smaller than fruit from irrigated farms, and the yield is also smaller.
"There is no way to get around the fact that you're trading size and plumpness for flavor," said Maine.
He sees dry farming as a small niche industry given the smaller size of the product.
"You still find that people buy with their eyes," said Maine, "unless you can get the message to them with marketing, before they get to the point of purchase."
Adapting to rainfall
One farmer who still dry farms today is Fritz Durst, who owns Tule Farm in Yolo County's Dunnigan Hills, where he grows garbanzo beans, wheat, safflower and other crops.
"There is no irrigation here, only rainwater in this area," said Durst, a fifth- generation farmer. His farm gets between 8 to 30 inches of rainfall each year.
"What we've done is we've adapted to the rainfall," he said. "I've learned certain crop rotations where it is best to follow one crop with another crop because of moisture limitations."
To keep the rainwater from evaporating or running off, Durst uses the residue from past crops to trap moisture. That moisture, however small, keeps his crops alive throughout the dry season.
Durst also farms irrigated crops. He said he understands why farmers eschew dry farming, but believes irrigation comes with its own burdens. "Believe me, no one irrigates for fun, because when you irrigate it costs you money."
Durst irrigates with water from an irrigation district, as well as from wells on his property. Expenses for a well can add up as farmers are forced to drill deeper to find water.
Maine said he'd love to give dry farming another chance. "I'd have to find the right place for something like a rare fruit, or a sustainable fruit," he said. "Raising something with all those nice concepts rolled into one orchard? That would be fun."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling (209) 578-2385.