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Western Region Story

Amy Garrett, County Agent – Benton County and Assistant Professor of Practice serving Linn, Benton, and Lane Counties, Oregon State University Extension

Dry Farming: Growing Fruits and Vegetables without Water

Amy Garrett
Amy Garrett
Amy Garrett’s i-Three Issue Corps project focuses on establishing and leveraging a set of social media strategies to share dry farming practices widely. From the NeXC2016 Conference and her nine-month Issue Corp experience, she has expanded her social media horizons, incorporated Working Out Loud strategies into her Facebook outreach to expand the network of participants in dry farming in Oregon and to identify and partner with a national network of water conservation experts to submit grants to expand her project further.

In recent years, reduced snowmelt, higher temperatures and drought have presented growing climate risks to farmers in the Pacific Northwest. In response, five years ago, Amy Garrett, became interested in finding ways to grow fruits and vegetables with little or no water. Her search led to a reawakening of dry farming, an ages-old set of practices predating the widespread development of irrigation.

At NeXC2016, Amy profited from the new experience of an “actively working conference,” where Issue Corps members collaborated and shared plans for their projects. Both peer participants and key informants exposed her to new technologies, new processes and new contacts. “I know these will all stick with me,” she says, “and I have approached my project differently from before conference.”

“One of the most common questions I get at the Extension office is, ‘I just moved on to this piece of land, and I’m trying to figure out what I can grow here,’” says Amy, “and I was discovering that, more often than not, people were on land without water or limited water availability.”

Then about three years ago, she met a farmer in his seventies who has been dry farming fruits and vegetables for the past 40 years with no irrigation, first in California for 30 years, now just south of Corvallis. Amy began case studying his work, dropping by every month during the growing season to take pictures documenting his practices. Later in the season, she held a Field Day at his farm, wrote an article about what he was doing, and interest in dry farming started to grow.

Testing the Principles with Gratifying Results

In 2015, Amy decided to take this farmer’s practices and do a demonstration of them at an Oregon State University site, growing some of the same crops he had grown the same way she had seen him do it. When 2015 turned into a year of extreme drought, she was uncertain what would happen, but by midsummer, things were looking good, and they started harvesting tomatoes and melons in July.

“I decided to organize a Field Day at the site in early August 2015,” Amy reports. “I anticipated about 20 to 30 people would show up. We had 100 show up because everyone was being impacted by the drought in different ways and wanted to know how this was done.” Media coverage followed and people began contacting Amy, wanting to know more about how dry farming works.

“Traditionally Oregon State research has focused on yield maximization,” says Amy “Dry farming is not a yield maximization strategy, so there’s not a lot of information on how to grow tomatoes, potatoes, squash, melon, dry beans and zucchini without irrigation. Dry farming is about helping growers without supplemental irrigation. It’s the old way of farming.”

Using the New to Advance the Old

“Since I was at NeXC2016 in March with the Issue Corps, our dry farming collaborative effort has blossomed. We currently have with approximately 20 different growers doing participatory dry farming research,” Amy reports. “I provided plant material for them so they are growing many of the same varieties on different soil types, in different locations, in different little microclimates.”

Meanwhile, additional participants have joined the collaborative, growing it to more than 65 members, with two or three more joining each week. They are connected by an email list and a Facebook page, where they provide pictures, ask questions and provide updates. They can all observe what the plants in different locations look like–tomatoes, melons, squashes and potatoes—as they flower and ripen.

At NeXC2016, Amy profited from the new experience of an “actively working conference,” where Issue Corps members collaborated and shared plans for their projects. Both peer participants and key informants exposed her to new technologies, new processes and new contacts. “I know these will all stick with me,” she says, “and I have approached my project differently from before conference.”

Her peers and key informants at the conference encouraged her to bring more technology into her project, especially video. “I already had the idea, but not the funding to do it,” she recalls. “I got the video idea from Issue Corps—actually I had the idea but NeXC key informants emphasized it. I didn’t have funding to do video myself, but when I was approached by two different entities wanting to do a story on dry farming, I was able to leverage the opportunity. For helping them produce those two videos on our 2016 August Field Days, I will be able use them in our curriculum.”

Another technology boost she got at the conference came from meeting Shane Bradt and learning of story mapping. While she doesn’t have the time or resources at present to develop a story map on dry farming and its locations, she anticipates picking that up in the winter, when her collaborative members regroup to assess 2016 evaluation data and plan for 2017.

Amy also adopted Working Out Loud strategies and applied them to her Facebook networking and beyond. She credits them for achieving the increase in collaborative participants, attendees at workshops, her relationship with her local soil conservation district to connect her with their audience. She also acted upon the encouragement of Issue Corps key informants to initiate relationships with contacts who could become partners in her work.

“The key informants and peers at the conference told me that by reaching out for partners, I would strengthen grant proposals,” she says. “That would allow me to design bigger projects—bigger than I can do alone.”

This advice has paid off. Amy has become a proposal partner in a team that has submitted a pre-proposal to the USDA to do research on increasing soil moisture holding capacity. “Hopefully we’ll get invited to submit a proposal.”

Amy has also applied for a USDA grant to look at all the different strategies for growing with minimal or no water. “Dry farming is just one strategy.”

“What we are doing is co-creating the future of how we use water on our farms,” she concludes. “Co-creating. That’s another concept I got from Issue Corps. There are many brilliant farmers in our area—and everywhere. Co-creating brings us together to work on solving our water issues and conserving water to sustain agriculture.”