You think your water cutbacks are tough? Try farming without irrigation, relying only on rainwater. Actually, lots of crops are dry-farmed across the state. Wheat and grapes are common, and there are tomatoes on the Central Coast, squash in Humboldt and potatoes in Marin.
Jutta Thoerner dry-farms walnuts outside Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, and she’s an outspoken advocate of the practice.
Thoerner and her partner, Cynthia Douglas, own Manzanita Manor Organics. They have solar panels running their coolers and sheep grazing their vineyards. At their walnut orchard, Thoerner gets a tractor out only twice a year. Mostly, she uses horses.
Today, Thoerner sits in a wagon, gently but firmly directing two horses named Sonny and Lily. They’re pulling a large log behind the wagon to smooth out the ground.
“We want to get this as smooth and as flat as we possibly can,” says Thoerner. “No big clumps.”
This process will help keep moisture underground, and make harvesting easier.
“Ideally, we want it like glass,” she says. “It’s a little difficult on these hills, but we try.”
As she unhooks the horses, she explains that it’s all part of her process of dry farming, using no irrigation ever, on her trees.
“What that means is whatever rain comes down from the sky is the water that they’re getting.”
People have farmed this way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
“Forty or 50 years ago we were all dry-farming here in the California hills,” says Thoerner. “Everybody dry-farmed almonds and walnuts and grapes and some fruit trees.”
That was before irrigation came in and people planted crops more densely on all types of soil. Thoerner says dry farming’s a good fit for coastal or foggy areas, less so for huge operations in sandy soil.
“But,” she says, “If farmers have the right soil and the right conditions, it can be done on other properties. And who knows? Maybe this drought will make that happen.”
Dry farming’s not about crossing your fingers and hoping for rain. Thoerner keeps her trees spaced far apart so they don’t compete for water. She monitors the weather carefully, trying to estimate the ideal time to cultivates the soil. Then she creates a dust mulch, a kind of seal, like she was doing with her horses and that log.
While workers trim trees by hand, Thoerner explains that she has to graft two kinds of walnuts together to get the best results. The variety on the top — which grows a great-tasting walnut — is grafted onto a different, heartier stock, whose roots are great at finding water underground.
“They are fantastic as a dry-farm root stock. They go to China, those roots,” she jokes. “They go so, so deep.”
These last few dry years, Thoerner and workers protect grafted branches by wrapping them in cages of chicken wire covered in shade cloth.
“It looked ridiculous but it worked,” she says.
But the drought definitely makes dry farming harder.
“Unfortunately, with the way the weather has been, my production of walnuts has been going down steadily every year.”
Thoerner and I stand underneath a tree where she looks for examples of doubles, sets of two walnuts in clusters, which can mean a better yield.
“Every farmer likes to see doubles. But we really like to see triplets.” When I spot one, she says, excitedly, “Lisa found a triplet! That’s cool. I have not seen triplets in a few years.”
Despite that find, I can see the orchard is suffering. Some trees have dead branches, and the walnuts, which are always smaller than ones from irrigated orchards, are really tiny this year. Many are just a little bigger than my thumb.
These small nuts taste sweet and buttery. But lately, Thoerner says, tree breeders have focused most on developing varieties that produce big walnuts that crack easily, and fall out in perfect halves. That’s a silly standard, she says, when people are just going to chop them up into salads and cookies anyway.
“Whatever happened to taste, people?” she asks, incredulously.
About 40 miles west, farmer Mike Cirone says his farmers market customers are becoming connoisseurs of his small, sweet, dry-farmed fruit, clamoring over his dry-farmed apricots. Same goes for the 60 varieties of apples he farms without irrigation.
“If you pump ’em all up, they tend to all taste the same,” he says. “When you let them do their own thing, then it really accentuates the unique flavor of each variety.”
Cirone’s been successfully dry-farming for over 30 years. Digging his boot heel into dry topsoil and revealing moisture underneath, Cirone explains that he made it through a drought in the ‘80s pretty well.
“The difference was, the ’80s drought, it was cool,” he says. “This drought is warm. This drought feels like we’re living in Palm Springs in the middle of winter. To me, that is the most unsettling notion. That signifies real climate change to me.”
Jutta Thoerner is concerned, too.
“If the drought continues and the global warming continues, I don’t want people to stop farming,” she says.
She concedes that the profits aren’t as big in dry farming, but she hopes some small growers will consider converting their irrigated orchards, or planting new ones for dry farming, rather than giving up. She’s most hopeful that young farmers will hear this message.
“Some of them are just a few years out of school. All they know is the drought,” she says. “The new generation that is not afraid to try new things, I want to tell them: ‘Just dry farm. You absolutely can make a living if you work your behind off.’ ”
Her advice? Just find a piece of land with good soil and do it.
This piece is part of the series California Foodways. Stories in the series that address food and climate change are funded by a grant from Invoking the Pause. Lisa Morehouse produced this story while at a residency at the Mesa Refuge.