These days it doesn’t matter where we farm – often we don’t get enough rain.
Farmers are experiencing the worst droughts in living memory. In some parts of the world, drought threatens farmers’ lives as well as their livelihoods. Even in balmy temperate climates farmers now get heatwaves and weeks without rain.
We need to make our farms more resilient to drought. We can then make the most of the water we have available, extend our growing season by keeping soil moist well into dry times, and save money on feed for livestock when growing gets tough.
Usually, we respond by digging dams and bores and putting in new water points. We de-stock, bring in rotational grazing practices, grow drought-resistant crops, use mulch, and water-smart irrigation technology.
As the recent droughts have shown us – these solutions are not enough.
One option is using engineering solutions like swales, terraces, natural sequence farming, and keyline. These earthworks help re-hydrate soil by redirecting and reducing surface runoff, increasing water infiltration into the soil.
In drylands, it’s often impossible to grow crops without these structures. That’s why people have been using them for centuries.
There is, however, a remarkably simple solution that tends to get overlooked.
That gets the rain in your rain gauge infiltrating and stored in your soil, rather than running off.
That’s economical to implement right across your farm, improves soil and provides opportunities to develop new income streams.
With this ‘eco-logical’ approach you use ‘points of leverage’ in your water cycle (solid blue arrows in the diagram below) to increase the amount of water absorbed and stored in your soil and to reduce water loss through evaporation.
The tools in the light green boxes below show how.
Plants store water, reduce temperatures and water loss from the soil through evaporation.
But the real magic happens through vegetation supplying food for our soil ecosystems.
Given a plentiful, regular and preferably diverse diet of organic materials and root exudates (the sugars and proteins plants release from their roots) soil organisms will construct soil which water readily infiltrates and is stored. I explain how in the Eco-logical Farming Handbook.
“Sustainable intensification requires smarter, precision technologies for irrigation, and farming practices that use ecosystem approaches to conserve water” Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
A policymaker’s guide to the sustainable intensification of smallholder crop production, FAO, 2011