Drought Challenges Dry Farmers

As the drought drags on with no end in sight, California farmers face the sobering prospect of springs and wells drying up.

But at Red H Farm in Sebastopol, that isn’t a consideration, much less an option, because their well collapsed six years ago. That’s when farmer Caitlin Hachmyer turned to dry farming. Now, she relies on the rain to feed her crops, and obsesses over the soil to keep it moist through the dry season. It works; most of her fields don’t need any irrigation, and while yields are lower, less water makes for a more concentrated flavor—a bite of her dry-farmed tomatoes is a reminder that they are, in fact, a fruit.

But after two years of meager rain, the ground is parched. Blasting heat waves serving up triple-digit temperatures, and fleeting coastal fog, are beginning to take a heavy toll. “I’m at about 50% of my usual harvest this time of year,” Hachmyer says. Clearly, there’s only so much dryness that even dry farming can take. She’s anxious about the long, hot months ahead, and hopes the remaining crops nestled in her lower-lying fields fare better.

Given the region’s arid climate, the sustainable ethos of dry farming seems like a no-brainer. Heavy rains soak loamy and clay fields in the winter, and cool summer fog helps to lock it in during the dry months. Meanwhile, drought-tolerant, early maturing crops sip moisture through deep roots while developing rich, intense flavors. But as seasonal precipitation gets stingier and less reliable, its long-term sustainability in the North Bay is starting to look uncertain. Local farmers are abandoning dry fields as they contemplate shutting down for the season, or moving altogether to greener, more water-secure pastures up north.

Seasonal patterns were consistent on Hachmyer’s 1.2-acre family farm for as long as she can remember. “I grew up here,” she says, her slender frame capped by a no-nonsense bun, “so I have a 37-year relationship with this particular place.” Fields flooded in winter, and foggy mornings rarely pushed summer temperatures past the high 80s. By fastidiously working the soil with absorbent organic matter and protecting it with woven tarps and thick mulch, her crops thrived without irrigation, even during past droughts.

“Usually, June is the most lush, beautiful time on the farm,” Hachmyer says. “Things start drying out in July and August, but in a regular year, I’d still be harvesting broccoli florets from a February planting.” Typically, she’d have a summer bounty of vegetables, leafy greens and squash, followed by a fall crop of flavor-rich tomatoes. “But this year, there’s just no water,” she says. And an early summer heat wave left many of her plants withering. “Even in [previously dry] years, my soil has still had tons of moisture, but this extreme drought is like ‘next level.’”

North Bay rainfall has averaged 13 inches this year—about a third of normal. That sounds extreme, even for dry farming, but the volume of rain is only one factor, says Paul Vossen, an agricultural consultant based in Santa Rosa. Filling the soil profile with moisture also requires consistent and cumulative precipitation.

“If you get 13 inches all in a few rains, particularly if one was in late spring, then you’d have your soil profile full,” he says, “and everything would be pretty good, actually.” Intermittent sprinkles can turn the hills grassy in the spring, but crops require deeper, consecutive soakings.

Vossen recently retired as the University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, where he specialized in farming in drought conditions. After 35 years on the job, he’s seen it all—but agrees that this year is exceptional. And the rise in seasonal temperatures only adds to the challenges. “It’s one thing to dry farm when it’s in the 80s [during the day] and cool at night,” he says, “and another when it’s 100 degrees every day.”

On a 10-acre farm outside of Petaluma, Jesse and Moira Kuhn of Marin Roots Farm are down to their last harvest of dry-farmed greens. They didn’t get their usual profusion of native crops like chickweed and miner’s lettuce this spring, says Jesse Kuhn, and their fields are crackling dry. “We’ve got a little bit of chamomile, lamb’s quarters, dandelion and spring onions—maybe one last pick.”

Kuhn, who grew up in San Geronimo, enlisted his father’s help in digging a deeper spring, which he’s using to irrigate herbs and microgreens inside two greenhouses. “It’s still very, very little water,” he says, shaking freshly dug pebbles out of his pockets. “But we have to rely on it to carry whatever we plant through the remainder of the season, because whatever little water is left in the soil is going to go quickly.” He grins solemnly beneath his handlebar mustache.

The Kuhns have resisted the siren call of more water security, in less-pricey regions up north. “We both have family here,” he says, “along with all of our restaurant accounts and farmers markets, [largely within] a 50-mile radius.” But with no signs of the drought easing, they’re looking to plant new roots in Marin, in fields with better access to water.

Twenty miles northwest, towards Bodega Bay, David Little has dry-farmed potatoes and tomatoes on nearly 50 acres of coastal land for the past quarter century. The San Anselmo native runs Little Organic Farm with his daughter, Caressa, and her fiancé, Anthony Giaccobe, on fields cobbled together on five different ranches across the Marin-Sonoma border.

Little is quick to note that he fallows nearly half of his acreage, often for two to three years at a time, to allow the soil to recharge with moisture and nutrients. He also sites his fields carefully, planting crops at the base of slopes and hills, where water tends to collect underground. It’s a long-term investment in land management, and this year, the odds seem a bit tenuous. 

Loquacious and eccentric, Little’s presence is as big as his personality. “Alice Waters came by my [farmers market] booth and asked me how I was doing with the drought,” he says. He and the famous Chez Panisse owner go way back, apparently. “I just told her, ‘less yields, smaller potatoes, more flavor, less waste.’”

Indeed, his tubers are compact, ranging in size from marbles to golf balls, perfect as sides to a fancy dish. Little digs up an entire plant, shaking the clumpy-but-dry soil off the roots to pick a cluster of baby Crimson Kings. He harvests about six per plant, explaining that were he to leave them longer, they would continue to grow in size and yield upwards of 14. “We’re robbing the cradle to get new potatoes for the sweetness and texture, and also to get back in the market because we’re strapped for money.”

For farmers, “the struggle is real,” Giaccobe says. “Normally, our tomato crop pays for the harvest of the potatoes, but I don’t even know if [they’re] going to grow this year.” He was surprised at the number of customers who balked at their 25% price hike last year. “There’s a disconnect between what’s going on in nature, how hard the work is and how much everything else—paper bags, boxes and labor—is going up in price.” He and Caressa hope to boost business by venturing into potato chips. “It’s a great way for us to utilize everything; all the ugly potatoes that people don’t want to buy.”

The farm also experienced an unexpected blow in late May, when a freak frost hit a low-lying field and destroyed three acres of potatoes. It came on the heels of plummeting restaurant sales during the Covid pandemic, and a two month market hiatus during a dip in yields. “If I sound disgruntled, it’s because I am,” Little says. “It’s just crazy times for small farms.”

As the dry season continues, farmers pray for emergency relief, which looks as elusive as the next rainfall. Currently, federal and state drought relief is limited to livestock and perennials, not diversified annual crops, says Red H’s Hachmyer, adding that immediate funds are desperately needed to keep family farms afloat. “It’s slim margins as it is,” she says. “It’s really important to make sure that small-scale farmers don’t throw in the towel this year.”

Meanwhile, Hachmyer is considering raising funds to dig a new well. “There’s really not a whole lot more adapting that I can do,” she says. “At some point, my plants just need at least a little bit of water.”

Naoki Nitta is a food and sustainability writer based in San Francisco.
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