By definition, it simply means farming without supplemental irrigation. Dry farming has a long history both in Europe and California. Grape growers in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and France have dry farmed for thousands of years. To this day, in many European wine regions the use of irrigation on grapevines is highly regulated.
In 1769, Spanish Missionaries near San Diego planted the first California vineyard. As California viticulture began and spread throughout the state for the next two centuries, vineyards were traditionally dry farmed. It wasn’t until the mid 1960s that Israeli inventor and engineer Simcha Blass introduced drip line irrigation technology to the world.
Dry farming in California is possible and there are still old dry farmed vineyards throughout different regions of the state. With proper knowledge and skill, new sites can be established as dry farmed vineyards. Vineyards under drip irrigation can be trained to use significantly less water over time.
Benefits of Dry Farming:
- Cost savings, both in terms of initial capital required for vineyard establishment, and operational costs. As dry farmed vineyards have less water to begin with, excessive vigor is curbed. This means less labor hours hedging, removing laterals, shoot thinning, crop thinning, etc.
- Increased fruit quality (dry farmed vineyards typically produce smaller berries, creating better skin to pulp ratio for high quality winemaking)
- No water dependency means the vineyard is better equipped to weather climatic shifts
- Dry farmed vines have shown better virus and disease resistance
- Grapevines develop an intricate deeper root structure, which lengthens vineyard longevity and overall vine heartiness
When establishing a dry farmed vineyard, it takes 5 years to develop a crop. Concentrating solely on root growth during this time period, the vines develop extensive root structures, increasing the overall longevity of the vineyard over time. This saves money on the back end, avoiding replanting costs.
The spectrum of dry farming and irrigating is vast. While we are proponents of dry farming and limited water use, we are not proposing that dry farming is appropriate for every single vineyard site. Like every decision in precision farming, it depends on the terroir.
In California, you either till or you don’t. There is no such thing as black and white when it comes to farming. Approaching tilling in terms of all or nothing is quite limiting. There is no recipe that works for every vineyard. A critical component of dry farming is utilizing strategic tilling to retain moisture.
The timing of tilling is crucial. Tilling at different times of the season can have very different consequences. Tilling in the fall opens up the ground for winter rain and forces the roots to grow downward, deeper into the soil. Tilling in the springtime removes unwanted weeds and breaks the capillaries of the soil to prevent water evaporation. There are no hard rules with tilling - practices have to be adapted to soil composition, soil structure, and climate.
The decision to till or not to till is individual for every site. We aren't proposing to till everything, every year. But we are also not proponents of going no till for an extended length of time.
The till versus no till movement arises from the wide spread, universal use of one farming implement throughout California - the disc. When we mention tilling, we don’t necessarily mean the disc. The same exact implement should not be universally used on all vineyard sites. For instance, a disc used in clay soil forms a hardpan. A disc used in sandy soil does not cause compaction because the soil lacks significant structure.
The key to farming in general is using the right implement at the right time in the right soil.