Edible Marin and Wine Country — Summer 2010
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DRY FARMING: OLD TECHNIQUES FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
RACHEL RAPHAEL

THE EDIBLE BACKYARD GARDEN

As the reality of climate change creeps into our daily lives–a slow yet terrifying concept that culminates in a dustbowl vision of parched soil and drooping plants–it's comforting that one tried-and-true farming method is in place to soften our fall. Dry farming, an age-old method of relying solely on winter rains for a crop's water needs, might just save the day. With the mainstream arrival of drip irrigation in the 1980s, most farms and homeowners in this area forever wed themselves to this system. And it's a viable option. After recuperating from the initial installment fee, it's undeniably cost and water efficient. By delivering water directly to the root zone, drip systems allow gardeners to forego the overhead sprinkler method, an embarrassingly indulgent relic from 1950s lawn culture.

But have we become overly reliant on the highly touted drip option? As a longtime believer and user of it myself, I think so. Although entirely appropriate in many circumstances, it is often overused or used incorrectly. For instance, if a home vegetable gardener already has a drip system in place, it's standard fare to "hook up" each new vegetable without researching the newcomer's actual water needs. A prime example is the tomato. Tomatoes are excellent dry farming candidates and yet it's commonplace to see them on the same drip schedule as water-thirsty greens. Another misuse rests in overwatering due to a cruise-control attitude encouraged by computerized timers. If your watering habits fall into any of these categories–all crops are on the same schedule, you water several times a week, or your spring watering schedule remains unchanged through the summer–then you are wasting water. And this nasty habit also reduces flavor: too much water in the roots means diluted taste…which brings us back to the benefits of dry farming. If you could keep select water-loving crops on your drip system but switch the less thirsty candidates to a healthier and cheaper dry-farmed lifestyle, why wouldn't you?

DRY FARMING DEFINED

Dry farming is a natural and sustainable form of agriculture that has been around for thousands of years. Relying exclusively on winter rains and a simple tilling technique, farmers manipulate the soil and turn it into a metaphorical sponge, thereby maximizing its potential to hold water over a long period of time. Beginning as early as is possible in the spring, farmers embark on a multi-step tilling technique. To improve the structure and moisture-retention capacity of the soil, they disk several times then plow and disk again. All of this tilling moves organic material down deep while coaxing a "dust mulch"–a thick blanket of dry soil–to the surface. The dust mulch is then compressed with a roller to seal the top of the soil, much like a layer of cellophane. In the end, water in the soil is trapped under this layer and the soil below acts like a sponge, sucking water from deep below up into the root zone. The only way water can escape is through the capillary action of the roots. Brilliant!

TWO LOCAL DRY FARMING HEROES

David Little, owner of The Little Organic Farm (http://www.thelittleorganicfarm.com/Home.html) in Petaluma, is a self-trained dry farmer. In 1995, he left his career as a third-generation roofer and contractor to follow a farming dream. "I came from the school of hard knocks because I had no idea what I was doing. I nearly lost my mind that first year." But thanks to the wise words of old-timers who educated Little in local West Marin drinking holes, he slowly gleaned the art of dry farming. Fifteen years later, he now successfully grows over twenty varieties of potatoes as well as chard, broccoli, Walla Walla onions, sunchokes and Early Girl tomatoes.

"We always get enough water here. In fact, the last two drought years were my best because the rains stopped early. This meant I could work the soil early and get my crops in so they wouldn't experience too much water stress during the summer." Ironically, the copious rains of this past winter and spring presented dry farmers with a challenge. When rains linger on into mid-spring, the soil cannot be worked until later and in turn, planting is delayed. This means a later harvest and potentially a water shortage since plants are harvested later when the "sponge" may be drying out.

Another challenge of dry farming is decreased yield. "Dry farming is not about maximizing production," says Little. "In fact, my land produces only one-fourth the yield of my competitors who irrigate." Then why does he do it? The benefit lies in flavor. When a crop is water-stressed, it develops higher sugar content. If you irrigate a potato, the extra water will plump it up, but at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Thankfully, chefs and market-goers are tasting the difference and Little can charge a deserved premium price. It's no surprise, then, that his flavor-packed produce appears on the menus of world-class restaurants like Bardessono, the French Laundry, Greens, Marche Aux Fleurs (see side bar), Millenium and Quince.

John Williams, owner of Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford, says he dry farms for one reason: it simply makes the best wine. "This is not some new fancy way of doing things," says Williams. "For thousands of years, grapes have been dry farmed because they are genetically wired to put roots deep into the soil."

We all know that water dilutes flavor, and although that can work to one's benefit–think of a potent hard alcohol softened up by the addition of "rocks"–it's not the case with grapes. Dry-farmed grapes produce outstanding flavor early in the season. Irrigated grapes, however, must stay longer on the vine to develop depth of flavor–longer on the vine means higher alcohol content. Frog's Leap wines hover around 12.5-13% ABV (alcohol by volume) while irrigated vineyards are pumping it up to 14-16% ABV. But not all winemakers think this is so bad. Proponents of irrigation feel strongly that water is an essential winemaking tool as it turns up the volume on fruit and flavor.

In addition to producing wines with lower alcohol content and more concentrated flavor, dry farming also combats other challenges of farming. With the arrival of drip irrigation in the 1970s also came pesky sidekicks like weeds and disease. "When you add all that water to a grape vine," says Williams, "you create an unnatural environment and the balance gets out of whack." And then growing organically–which Williams does–becomes more difficult due to the need for herbicides and fungicides. "Irrigating grapes just doesn't make sense," adds Williams, "but dry farming them sure does."

The other advantages of dry farming may be a controversial topic, but from a water conservation standpoint, it's hard to argue against it: Williams estimates his winery saves 16,000 gallons of water per acre annually! "Of course, saving water is a bonus, but that's not why we do it. Our vines are 100% dry farmed because this method produces the healthiest, most flavorful grapes for wine. It's that simple."

BRINGING DRY FARMING HOME

Homeowners may not have the tilling expertise or equipment to dry farm in the same way as Little or Williams, but it's certainly possible to put the premise to work in your garden. First off, dry farming only works in moisture-retaining soils like sandy loam; don't attempt it with extreme sand or clay. Coastal gardeners might have slightly better returns, but any spot that receives at least 20 inches of water a year–and most gardens in Marin, Napa and Sonoma do–is a candidate. Choose crop varieties that ripen early or those that can handle water stress: Early Girl and Sun Gold tomatoes, most potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, onions and winter squash are excellent choices. Separate water-loving crops like lettuce into an irrigated bed.

In the fall, amend your soil with compost, till it, then plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop like vetch or clover. Over the winter, sip a cup of tea as you watch Mother Nature's rain offerings sink into the bed. As soon as the soil is workable–this means the dirt is wet but not waterlogged and is easily turned–till in the cover crop. Do this several times over the course of a few weeks, then use a roller (they are available for rent) to smooth the area and seal in the moisture. Plant the bed, add a thick layer of mulch, and pat yourself on the back for the rest of the summer as your water bill plummets and delectable vegetables grace your table. Dry farming is just that easy.

Rachel Raphael was born into a family of avid cooks and gardeners, so it's no wonder the Marin native gravitated toward food and horticulture from an early age. As the owner of Letter & Leaf (www.letterandleaf.com), she currently designs small-space gardens and containers that feature unusual botanicals and tasty edibles. Prior to that, Raphael was the heart and soul behind Smith and Hawken's weekly online column, Garden Guru.

Wild California Salmon with David Little's Ruby Crescent and French Fingerling Potatoes, Fava Beans, Spring Onions and Meyer Lemon Aioli

Contributed by Chef Dan Baker of Marche Aux Fleurs

INGREDIENTS FOR SALMON AND VEGETABLES

6 six-ounce wild California salmon fillets (available May-September this year), skin on and scales removed
3 lbs Ruby Crescent fingerling potatoes
3 lbs French fingerling potatoes
3 lbs fava beans, shelled (3 lbs with shells on)
1 bunch spring onions, sliced lengthwise
1 cup Meyer lemon aioli (see below)
extra virgin olive oil for potatoes sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste grapeseed or canola oil for cooking salmon

INGREDIENTS FOR MEYER LEMON AIOLI

2 egg yolks
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, chopped
3 Meyer lemons

TO PREPARE SALMON AND VEGETABLES

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice potatoes in half lengthwise, toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake until cooked through, about 10-15 minutes depending on the size of potatoes. Remove potatoes from the baking sheet and add onions to the same baking sheet, re-using the oil left on the pan from cooking the potatoes. Bake until just cooked, only 1 or 2 minutes.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shelled favas and cook for about one minute. Immediately transfer favas to an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Remove the outer skin from the blanched favas. Discard any beans that are not green or seem hard and tough.

Season salmon fillets with salt and pepper on both sides. Add a small amount of grape seed or canola oil to a very hot cast iron skillet. Add salmon fillets and reduce heat to medium. Press fillets down to adhere skin to pan, but do not move fish while cooking. Make sure pan is hot enough to crisp the skin of the fish, but not so hot that it will burn. Once skin is crisp (you should be able to see browning occurring on the sides), about 3 or 4 minutes, flip fillets and cook one additional minute. Fish should be cooked to medium-rare and have a bright pinkish red center.

TO PREPARE MEYER LEMON AIOLI:

In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil VERY slowly into the egg yolks. Be careful not to add oil too fast or the aioli will break. Once the oil is fully incorporated, add the chopped garlic and the juice of 2 or 3 lemons, depending on how juicy they are, and the finely chopped zest of one. Add salt to taste. If too thick, add more lemon juice or a few drops of water.

TO SERVE:

Gently toss hot potatoes and fava beans (warm or at room temperature) in enough Meyer Lemon Aioli to coat the vegetables generously (but not too much). Place a portion on each plate next to a small pile of warmed spring onions and place the salmon on top, leaning on the potatoes.

Dry Farmed Produce Shines in A Chef's Kitchen

Chef/Owner Dan Baker of Ross' Marche Aux Fleurs (www.marcheauxfleursrestaurant.com) takes seriously the connection to its namesake market in the South of France, basing his cuisine on the seasons or the "cuisine du marche." Chef Baker plans his ever-changing, seasonal menus while strolling our local farmers' markets and this is precisely why David Little's dry-farmed produce consistently lands on the menu. "I can taste the difference in Little's dry-farmed produce," says Baker. "His tomatoes are easily the most flavorful I've tried. His potatoes boast concentrated flavor, which is difficult to find when consumer demand still drives the bigger equals better fallacy." But Baker also recognizes that dry farming holds value beyond the tastebud. "Dry farming has a multi-pronged benefit. These farmers conserve water and work sustainably with the environment."
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