We’re getting harder hit by drought. Standard solutions no longer seem enough. Earthworks like swales, contour banks, Natural Sequence Farming, and Keyline Design can help you drought-proof your farm. But there is a remarkably cost-effective technique that we tend to overlook – getting more water infiltrating and stored in our soil.

How do we do this? Using the vegetation to enhance our soil’s capacity to capture and store water and reduce water loss from evaporation.[1,2]

Vegetation provides shade and wind protection, reducing water loss from evaporation. Living ground covers, leaf litter, and mulch reduce runoff.

But did you know that there is another indispensable role plants play?

Plants are the primary food source for the soil organisms responsible for maintaining soil structure and producing organic matter – the two things crucial for increasing water infiltration and storage in our soil.[1, 2]

See the blue arrows in the diagram below.

Diagram showing How to Drought-Proof your Farm - Water Cycle

Eco-logical Principles

Supplied with a generous, diverse and preferably consistent supply of:

  1. Organic waste materials from plants, livestock and other living organisms,
  2. Decaying roots, and
  3. Root exudates (the sugars and proteins that plants release from their roots)
Photo of good soil structure

soil organisms break down the organic waste materials into organic matter, and build a crumbly soil structure with water-holding particles (aggregates) and spaces in between for water storage.[1,2]

Organic matter acts like a sponge storing incredible amounts of water – up to 90% of its weight.[3]

Photo showing water being squeezed out of soil

Spreading mulch and compost isn’t as effective because only a small portion of the organic materials from above-ground inputs are retained long-term as organic matter. Organic materials from plant roots and root exudates are needed to increase the levels of organic matter stored in our soil.[4,5]

Two Essential Things to Remember

  1. The warmer (and wetter) your climate – the more food your soil organisms require.[1] That’s why – silvopasture, the raising of animals among trees, is ranked across Africa, Asia and South America as the most important climate-smart intervention graziers can make.[6] Arable farmers and horticulturists in these regions are also starting to grow cereals and veggies using agroforestry designs
  2. Don’t worry that the extra vegetation will suck too much water out of the ground through transpiration. Transpiration is the process by which water gets transported from plant roots to the leaves, where it is released into the atmosphere as water vapour. Research shows that as your soil improves, less water will get lost overall because of the reduction in water loss from evaporation, combined with increased water infiltration and storage in your soil.[7]

Advantages of this Eco-logical Approach

  1. Make the most of the water you have available and extend your growing season by keeping soil moist well into dry times.
  2. Reduce your irrigation costs.
  3. Plants grown to feed your soil ecosystem can be used to produce an income too!
  4. Reduce your reliance on fertilisers and compost.
  5. Grow mulch right where you need it – saving you the effort and expense of inputting organic materials from elsewhere!
  6. Help to increase precipitation.

>>See the Benefits in this Video

YouTube thumbnail for how to drought-proof you farm

Getting more Support from Learning from Nature

It’s hard to feel positive during a drought. Use these resources to develop eco-logical solutions, and get your seeds, seedlings, and planting materials ready for when the rain does come!

Recommended articles –

  1. Drought-Proof your Farm – An Inspiring Story
  2. How to Drought-Proof your Grazing Land
  3. How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically
  4. Trees make Rain – there is science now to prove it!
  5. How can we increase Rainfall – Eco-logically

Or learn everything you need to know with this Handbook

Front cover Drought-proof your Farm

References for How to Drought-Proof your Farm

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Published by Learning from Nature.

[2] Wendy Seabrook, 2020, Drought-Proof your Farm, Published by Learning from Nature.

[3] Jones, C. E., 2006, Carbon and catchments. National’ Managing the Carbon Cycle’ Forum, Queanbeyan, NSW, 22-23 November 2006.

[4] Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478

[5] Daniel P. Rasse, Cornelia Rumpel & Marie-France Dignac, 2005, Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation, Plant and Soil (2005) 269: pp 341–356

[6] Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life. Insights from CSA Country Profiles across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sova, C. A., G et. al. 2018. Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life: Insights from CSA Country Profiles Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. World Bank, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Washington, DC.

[7] Andrea D. Basche & Oliver F. Edelson., 2017, Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41:7, 799-824.

Featured image © Tom Fisk

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