How Farmers Conserve Water in a Drought

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A group of California farmers did the unexpected this year: They beat their water conservation goals.

In spite of an ongoing drought and scorching temperatures, Western farmers continue to produce food, while also cutting their water use. How is this possible? Today’s farmers make use of a variety of technologies, strategies and innovative solutions:

  • Drip irrigation: Drip irrigation, sometimes called trickle irrigation or micro-irrigation, is a system that lets water drip slowly near plant roots, rather than wetting the entire field. It requires half to one quarter of the amount of water compared to traditional irrigation.
  • Drought-tolerant crops: Farmers in the U.S. can plant a corn variety specifically designed to withstand drought conditions.corn field cover crop
  • Cover crops: Cover crops are grown in between harvests, which helps boost the health of the soil. Seeds, often grains or grasses, are planted in between the growing season of cash crops. These seeds increase organic matter in the soil and reduce erosion.

Farmers also help mitigate the effects of drought by keeping moisture in the soil. Illinois farmer Daniel Steidinger used radishes as a cover crop. The depth of the radish roots helped pull water down into the soil instead of having it sit on the surface.

“There was a 100-bushel difference in my field with cover crops, and in a drought like we had, that just speaks for itself,” he said in an interview with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

  • Laser leveling fields: Farmers use laser levels to flatten their fields in order to make rain water spread more equally. Laser leveling can also prevent run off and puddling. It’s a way of making sure water ends up where it’s most needed.
  • Conservation tillage: With conservation tillage, farmers plant without removing residue from the previous season’s crop. Because the soil isn’t tilled or plowed, more water is retained in it. The more soil is disturbed, the drier it becomes. Constant tillage was one of the contributing factors to the Dust Bowl.

“I’ve noticed a huge increase in the water-holding capacity of my ground since I’ve gone with conservation tillage. With conventional tillage, we had sealing-off issues and much less water infiltration,” said Mike McRee, a farmer in California’s drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley.

With these water conservation techniques, farmers are working hard to produce wholesome, nutritious food for all of us while still preserving natural resources. Now all that’s left is to do a rain dance. 

Elizabeth Held is a director at the White House Writers Group, where she advises food and agriculture clients.