By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Dryland farming provides an alternative

Non-irrigated acreage in the county, in fact, occupies substantially more land than irrigated acreage.

But some farmers are also looking at dryland farming of vegetables, which are typically heavily irrigated.

This summer, the Oregon State University Extension Service’s Small Farms program planted experimental patches of dry farmed dry beans, melons, zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash, tomatoes and potatoes. It held a demonstration day on Aug. 3 to let farmers and gardeners view the gardens and taste samples of irrigated vs. dry farmed tomatoes, cantaloupes and watermelons.

Farmer Dick Wadsworth, who owns Greenfield Farm in Veneta, grows tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, garlic, fava beans and beans without irrigation for sale to small grocers in Eugene, and served as a consultant for the project.

“Nothing ever wilts at all,” on his farm, he said.

Wadsworth, who dry farmed in California for a few decades before moving to Veneta in 2007, said that some vegetables, such as tomatoes, produce smaller fruit when dry farmed, but richer flavor, for which some markets in California pay a premium. An additional benefit is a reduction in weeds, he said.

Proper soil preparation is key, he said, along with adequate spacing of the plants. Soil with some clay content, to hold water, is important. Wadsworth said the soil must be worked only when it is at the right moisture content — damp, but not soaked — which can be a challenge for busy farmers, especially during a rainy spring.

“You’ve got to work it more than once,” he said.

Proper spacing is also key.

Wadsworth leaves eight feet between tomato rows, for example, to allow the plants plenty of room to sprawl — he doesn’t stake them, saying staked tomatoes don’t do as well with dry-farming — giving their root systems abundant room to grow as they seek out all available soil moisture.

He grows onions, which require considerable amounts of water, during the winter, to let the winter rains water them.

There are, however, some crops that Wadsworth doesn’t advise dry-farming, such as blueberries and many brassicas. The brassicas, he said, will grow, but will develop an unpleasantly strong flavor.

Dayton farmer Sam Sweeney, 77, said his family had a dry-farmed garden when he was young.

“I grew up on a hand-dug shallow well; I think it was 20 feet,” he said. “We never irrigated our garden, ever … we barely had enough water for the chickens and the cows and the house.”

Sweeney, whose son and daughter-in-law are now helping to run his 11,000-acre century farm, said he also recalled a neighbor who grew marionberries without irrigation. Sweeney irrigates his own marionberries with water from the South Yamhill River.

“He did OK,” Sweeney said. “He didn’t get as good a yield, and they didn’t get as big.” On the other hand, he said, the neighbor’s marionberry fields had fewer weeds than his own irrigated rows.

In addition to marionberries, Sweeney grows sweet corn and table beets for processing, along with a variety of other crops, nearly all of them irrigated. He said he doesn’t think it likely that large farms will switch to dry farming of row crops in the near future.

“We might have to look in that direction, and we might even benefit,” he conceded. “But I can’t imagine any big grower growing for a processor trying that without a program of some kind. This might be a crude way of putting it, but ... we’re selling water.”

But he said he welcomes research on the topic.

“I think smaller growers would be more apt to try it out,” he said. “For a home gardener, it might be a thing to explore a little bit.”

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