Dryland Farming

by Curt Burnett on April 26, 2011

I was born in a little town called Colfax in the state of Washington, near the Idaho border. Colfax is in an area called the “Palouse”, a name of uncertain (but possibly Native American) origins. This region has scenic rolling hills and, quite unlike Western Washington, a very dry climate. My mother’s parents were the descendants of homesteading pioneers and dryland farmers. Like many producers in the Palouse, they grew winter wheat without the aid of irrigation.

True dryland farming can be a precarious occupation. The grower depends on natural precipitation, without a safety net. While wheat can be grown with as little as ten inches of annual rainfall, the timing of precipitation is beyond human control and the farmer has to be conservative enough to financially survive an occasional lost crop. Growing up I heard stories of years in which the crop failed and my mother’s family barely got by (as well as bumper crop years when the price of wheat collapsed and they subsisted primarily on their own crop).

Dryland crop yields are lower than those of irrigated agriculture, but the lower cost of land and equipment make it feasible in some places. And in some areas like parts of Australia in recent years, formerly-irrigated land has reverted to dryland farming as water became too scarce to allow for irrigation. Sometimes dryland farming is a matter of choice, and sometimes it becomes a necessity.

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