What are Dry Farmed Tomatoes?
At the farmers' market you may see a sign saying that the produce is "dry farmed." In California, where rains hopefully saturate the soil in the winter and the sun dries everything out in the summers, dry farming is a natural. Dry farming is when new seeds or seedlings are watered until established and then water is cut off, forcing its roots deep into the soil in search of water and focus its efforts on producing fruit. The resulting tomatoes are usually smaller and lower in yield, but are so intense in flavor and texture, they are coveted by high-end restaurants and small specialty grocery stores.
Dry farming is also easy on the environment because it uses much less water than other conventional methods. And that's a big issue for California right now, suffering through another year of intense drought. Following winter and spring rains (or, during drought, watering from wells or from irrigation), the farmer will cultivate and break up the soil to create a moist “sponge.” Then the top layer is compacted using a roller to form a dry crust. This three- to four-inch layer, sometimes referred to as a dust mulch, seals in water and prevents evaporation. Water needs to be held any way possible for long periods of time. Once established, thinning of fruit or vegetables in necessary to ensure each plant gets as much water through its roots as possible. Other fruits and vegetables can also be dry farmed like melons, squash, and potatoes, leading to smaller product size with amazing flavor.
But one problem with dry farming is reduced yield. It's an unprofitable way to grow crops, but with the current drought, it's sometimes the only way to grow. Mediterranean grape and olive growers have dry-farmed for thousands of years. The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century. Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit.* Dry farming could be an important agricultural practice in the future, when water will likely be a less abundant resource. Farmers are at the mercy of the weather and soil conditions to grow their crops as they have always been. Dry farming just makes us more aware of where water comes from and how to conserve it.