Reduce Watering By Dry Farming Tomatoes

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About a year ago I was speaking with a friend of mine, and he mentioned dry farming. My first reaction to this was “Dry wha…?”. He began to explain what dry farming was and the methodology behind it. To be honest, I was very skeptical and really thought he was pulling my leg.

I jumped on the internet and did a little research. Come to find out dry farming tomatoes is a real practice, mostly used in the Southwest part of the country. I guess they have no real choice but to dry farm if they don’t get much rain, huh? It appears that dry farming has been around for a very long time, and might be spreading to other parts of the country.

What Is Dry Farming?

Dry farming tomatoes is a very simple process where you plant and water your tomatoes just as you normally would until the plant begins setting fruit. Once the fruit appears on the tomato plant, you cease to water it.

Basically, dry farming is growing crops without any irrigation to supplement rainfall. This does not mean your tomatoes will not be watered, just that you are not irrigating them yourself with drip irrigation or other watering methods. The plants are water only by rainfall only. Of course in extreme drought conditions you will need to water the tomato plants a little to keep them alive. Under normal weather conditions, dry farming is used.

What Is The Advantage Of Dry Farming Tomatoes?

Tomatoes that are overwatered tend to taste bland and watery. Dry farming creates a more flavorful tomato because the tomato plant will concentrate its sugars into the fruit, and can also help the tomato ripen much quicker.

Of course, there are obvious advantages in regards to water conservation, and a reduction in water costs if you are using city supplied water for your tomatoes.

What Are Some Disadvantages Of Dry Farming Tomatoes?

Although dry farming tomatoes has shown to improve the overall flavor of the tomato there are issues with this method of growing tomatoes.

Dry farming increases the chances of blossom end rot due to the fluctuations in watering. This can also cause some cracking or splitting of the tomatoes if water fluctuations are drastic. Dry farming can also reduce yield sizes, and can promote smaller tomatoes. Tomato plants may also look straggly and foliage changes could occur. If the plant begins to severely wilt, you may need to irrigate moderately.

UC Santa Cruz Is Studying The Effects Of Dry Farming Tomatoes

Aziz Baamuer of the UC Small Farm Program and Jim Leap, farm manager, are studying the effects of dry farming tomatoes, here is what they say:

Study of Reduced Water Inputs on Tomatoes Underway
We all know the scenario—a red, juicy tomato that looks
great but offers little in the way of flavor. In a study now
taking place at the CASFS Farm on the UCSC campus, Aziz
Baameur of the UC Small Farm Program and farm manager
Jim Leap are assessing ways to improve tomato flavor and
nutrition while decreasing water use.

“Excess nitrogen and more than adequate water application
to tomato plants, among other input culprits, result
in less than optimal flavor in tomato fruit, despite genetic
potential for good taste,” says Baameur, who notes that,
“This lack of flavor is not limited to conventional or organically
grown fruit.”

“Stressing” tomato plants by withholding water—a technique
used to produce dryland or dry-farmed tomatoes— is
a known way to improve flavor. However, as Baameur points
out, cutting back on water inputs can also result in undesirable
consequences such as yield decline (especially economic
yield), reduced fruit size, and increased occurrence of the
condition known as blossom end-rot, which can develop
when irrigation fluctuates, resulting in calcium not being
translocated to young tomato fruit tissue.

To identify an optimum water management strategy for
tomatoes, Baameur and Leap established four replicates each
of five irrigation treatments: 100%, 75%, 50%, 25% and
0% of water requirements based on California Irrigation
Management Information (CIMIS) recommendations. Each
replicate consists of a 40-foot row of ‘Early Girl’ variety tomatoes
irrigated with drip tape; the water stress treatments
began after the plants were established. Soil water moisture
sensors (a type of tensiometer) are being used to quantify
water depletion at the root level.

Plants in each treatment will be assessed for fruit yield,
percent of blossom end rot, culls, as well as plants’ overall
reaction to water stress. Baameur and Leap will collaborate
with Maria Giovanni, UC Cooperative Extension Advisor,
to assess fruit visual and sensory quality as determined by
both tasting panels and lab analysis. They will also assess
antioxidant levels as a proxy measure of nutrition levels.
The researchers plan to correlate fruit quality with water
stress and soil water sensor readings in order to identify an
optimal irrigation level.

The results of the current project will form the basis for
future studies to investigate the link between irrigation practices
and flavor of several popular tomato varieties under
different climatic conditions. “We hope to provide smallscale
growers with information on water saving techniques
that also yield favorable flavor results,” says Baameur.
Leap believes this trial’s design could have broader applications.
Noting that the tendency of most garden and farm
managers is to overapply water, Leap says, “I would like to
do this trial for a number of other crops. I think nitrogen
and water are the two most overused and little understood
inputs, and I am certain we can get by with much less of
both.”

– From The Cultivar, a publication produced by The Center for Argoecology & Sustainable Food Systems at The University of California Santa Cruz – Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 26, No. 1

Dry farming is a very interesting technique for growing tomatoes. I have never tried dry farming – most gardeners I have talked to think not watering your tomatoes is almost gardening suicide – but may experiment with it on a few tomato plants next season. Maybe you can give it a shot as well. Who knows, it may produce the best tomatoes you have ever had!

If anyone practices dry farming for their tomatoes, please feel free to give your take on it.

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Comments

  1. We grow dry farmed tomatoes on a small farm on the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The farm is called Struggles Tomatoes – because that is what the tomatoes do – struggle. But in the process of struggling the small amount of fruit they produce tastes really, really good … We don’t water at all. Not sure how this might work in inland locations where there is a lot more heat. Here on the coast we have cool foggy mornings that produce some “rain” under each plant every day. Beyond that nothing. No water at all. No where near the yields of Central Valley “fertigated” industrial tomatoes – but oh so much better.

  2. water conservation should be done because we are already having some water shortage these days~,~

  3. Gloria Broming says:

    Hi

    I live inLaguna Beach and am currently dry farming six Early Girl Tomato plants. They have a 100 plus fruit on them collectively, and have had zero irrigation since the week before Memorial day. The plants are starting to stress the first branches are dying off, and a couple of the tomatoes have blossom rot. I am worried that all of the tomatoes will have the same fate. Is there anything I can do without using water to prevent this?

    • Gloria Broming says:

      HI

      Just wanted to follow up and let you know that despite the the stress and a few tomatoes with blossom rot, we had a killer crop. We had 100s of tomatoes off of 6 Early Girl Tomato plants.

      Planted my cover crop in late November in a new plot for this years dry farmed tomatoes. I am going to branch out and try other varieties than Early Girl.

  4. I apprenticed on a small organic farm in Connecticut where we dry farmed our tomatoes. On the day of transplant, we watered their beds, covered the beds with black plastic mulch, then cut holes in the mulch and transplanted. And then without watering harvested the most delicious tomatoes I’ve had. I tried it this summer in my garden in the Los Angeles area, but used straw mulch and watered after transplanting until the plants started setting fruit, then not at all. No blossom end rot, no wilty plants, delicious fruits and as far as I could tell, my plants produced just as much fruit as anyone else’s garden at the community garden, if not more. And some of them were watering every few days. That being said, some of them probably also used disgusting synthetic fertilizers while I took great care in building up the health of my soil.

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