Dry Farming Challenges Everything Your Science Teacher Told You, But It Actually Works

At some point in grade school, students learn all about photosynthesis and how to make things grow. We poked around with beans, waited until they germinated, then planted them in soil, set’em in the sun and watered them daily so they’d turn into happy, fruitful bean plants. But despite the ingrained importance of water in successful gardening, some farmers in California are not only embracing dry weather, they’re forgoing watering on purpose to achieve sweeter results.

Humans can’t go a week without water usually, but it turns out that leaving a garden unwatered for months at a time can produce sweeter, more flavorful results than what’s in your common grocery store, reports NPR. Commercial farmers in California call it “dry farming,” and use it for anything from tomatoes, to apples, grapes, melons and potatoes.

California can get very dry, putting water at a premium. But if you don’t use as much water, you don’t spend as much money on water. One farm’s sales director says the taste of dry-farmed products have chefs, wholesalers and others begging for more.

“Once you taste a dry-farmed tomato, you’ll never want anything else,” she tells NPR, adding that if her tomato field was bigger she could be selling even more.

But how can this possibly work? Science, of course: By limiting how much water a plant gets, the fruits will have denser sugar and other flavor compounds that are easier to taste without all that water in the way.

You can’t just neglect the hose totally, however — farmers will give the plants a little water, explains one grower, then turn off the water after it’s had its fill for a few weeks.

The young vines take their thirst on a search for water, sending their roots deeper underground to find moisture than they would’ve otherwise. Farmers also use various processes like tilling the top foot of soil into a layer of dust that moisture coming from below can’t penetrate. It stays below for the plants.

One major drawback of not watering all your plants is that you just won’t be able to produce as many, so you’d better make sure the dry ones you’re able to bring to fruition will sell well. Thus, the fun marketing hook of dry farming — “We barely watered this and see how tasty it is? Pay more for it!”

Now if only my roommate would believe that I’m not forgetting to water his plants when he’s out of town, I’m just dabbling in dry farming.

To Grow Sweeter Produce, California Farmers Turn Off The Water [NPR]