CENTRAL VALLEY — A centuries-old technique called dry farming once the order of the day in the Central Valley is once again drawing the interest of some of the region's farmers.
The technique is as simple as it is risky. Dry farming relies solely on rainwater to keep crops growing throughout a dry season.
Used for centuries in the Mediterranean region to grow crops such as olives and grapes, the technique is not for the faint of heart. A year such as this, with a dry winter, can devastate crop output and put an onerous dent in a farmer's wallet.
"Dry farming would be a hard life because you're at the whim of the rains," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis. "It would have to be a fairly small-scale farm, and in some cases, it would be a good road to poverty."
Yet dry farming has its adherents. Many are small farmers and vintners who either lack irrigated water or believe that dry farming produces better tasting fruits and vegetables.
"I think people are interested in the idea," said Da- vid Runsten, policy director at the Community Alliance With Family Farmers.
The idea does not appear to be catching on in Stanislaus County, said Roger Duncan, a farm adviser specializing in almonds, grapes and other fruits for the UC Cooperative Extension.
He said wine grape growers might withhold irrigation early in the growing season to control leaf growth and improve fruit quality, but water is still needed later on.
Duncan noted that the valley in the 19th century was widely planted with wheat that relied on rainfall. The boom ended when irrigation allowed diverse fruits, vegetables and other crops to be grown.
Runsten recently promoted dry farming to a consortium of Amador County and Lodi farmers. "We're promoting it because we think it makes for better wine," he said.
But sustaining the viability of farms is an issue. Runsten cited a CAFF study that found that the 250-acre Frog's Leap vineyard in the Napa Valley conserved roughly 64,000 gallons of water per acre through dry farming each year.
"We're pumping a bunch of groundwater to produce cheap wine in California right now," Runsten said. "I don't know if that's sustainable."
A recently released study from researchers at the University of Texas warns that the current depletion rate of the Central Valley aquifer, the large storage of underground water farmers use for irrigation, is unsustainable even when wet years follow dry ones.
Currently, nearly half a million acres of land are devoted to wine grapes in California. Of those, about 2,000 acres are dry-farmed; the rest are drip irrigated, Runsten said.
Because dry-farmed fruits and vegetables need more space between each tree, it can prove a costly endeavor.
However, such spacing means roots spread out farther, which results in healthier trees and vines as well as more intense flavor, said Capay Valley farmer Jeff Maine.
He said he saw the superiority of dry-farmed fruit in a 100-year-old heirloom apricot orchard alongside Putah Creek, just west of Winters, between 2003 and 2010.
"The dry-farmed stuff has a whole different flavor," said Maine, who co-owns the farm, Good Humus Produce, with wife Anne Maine. "People really respond to the traditional aspects of it."
The popularity of Maine's apricots was not lost on Sacramento Food Co-op general manager Paul Cultrera, whose store sold them.
"Annie and Jeff's apricots are worth any price," said Cultrera. "They're that good, and that much better than whatever others we sell."
The store expects to sell potatoes and tomatoes that come from farms using the dry-farm method, said Kerri Williams, produce manager at the Co-op.
The Co-op sold the tomatoes last year and will offer them again in late summer. "The tomatoes were very popular. Once people tasted them, they didn't care what they cost," Williams said.
Typically, dry-farmed fruit grows much smaller than fruit from irrigated farms, and the yield is smaller.
"There is no way to get around the fact that you're trading size and plumpness for flavor," said Maine.
He sees dry farming as a small niche industry given the smaller size of the product.
"You still find that people buy with their eyes," said Maine, "unless you can get the message to them with marketing, before they get to the point of purchase."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.