Dry Farming Project adapts with virtual programming during pandemic

Recording a virtual dry farming field tour.

The Oregon State University Extension Dry Farming Project expanded so significantly in 2019 that student workers would be necessary to work on five planned field research projects in 2020. COVID-19 hit in the early spring, though, before those positions were filled.

The project adapted and navigated the hiring process amid pandemic restrictions and three students were brought onboard for the 2020 growing season. They worked with Amy Garrett, OSU Extension Small Farms Program associate professor of practice and coordinator of the Dry Farming Project. Garrett’s team continues its research into dry farming, the practice of growing crops like tomatoes, potatoes and beans with little or no irrigation.

As more guidelines and restrictions rolled out, it became apparent that any in-person programs for the public would have to be delivered virtually. After obtaining the appropriate equipment and diving into digital learning, the first Dry Farming Project virtual field tour series was held as harvest came in August and September. The series drew 137 participants from throughout Oregon, across the country and some internationally. Nine tours addressed a number of dry farming topics such as site suitability, soil management, variety trials and a harvest showcase.

Of the participants, 53% were commercial farmers and 51% of them didn’t have access to irrigation. Those not farming professionally included homesteaders and aspiring farmers. A majority of attendees hadn’t tried dry farming but 36% had one to five years of experience. Growth has been significant since the first dry farming field day in 2015, when less than 5% reported having dry farming experience. That equals a 30% increase in six years. The Dry Farming Collaborative, a fast-growing group of farmers and others inspired by the project, have a Facebook page that has seen membership grow 18% in the last year.

When the field tour participants were asked why they are interested in dry farming, there were a number of concerns, including having limited acess to irrigation water. Others cited climate change as their reason for considering dry farming. They were interested in the low-input techniques, the simplicity, cost and time savings and reduced labor.

“They want to conserve water and become more efficient while still producing flavorful, nutrient-dense foods,” Garret said.

In a follow-up survey, 55 responded and all of them reported their skills and knowledge improved and 68% plan to apply something they learned during the virtual feed tours. The Dry Farming Field Tours were recorded and have had 239 views as of January 2021.

Working with Garrett on the research team are Alex Stone, associate professor and Extension vegetable crop specialist; Lucas Nebert, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology; and Matt Davis, faculty research assistant in the Department of Horticulture, all in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. Garrett is the author of the OSU Extension catalog publication, "Dry Farming in the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Intro to Dry Farming Organic Vegetables."