Utah History Encyclopedia


By Terry Ellis
Dry farming refers to a set of techniques for raising crops in a semi-arid climate. It involves the maintenance of soil conditions that encourage moisture conservation, including tillage and drought resistant crop varieties. Dry farm areas follow a summer fallow cropping practice and are tilled every other year to conserve moisture. Dr. John A. Widtsoe, a former director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station defines it as "profitable production of useful crops without irrigation on lands which receive less than 20" of rain or modified as to make use of every opportunity to conserve moisture." Utah is credited with the origination of modern-day dry farming. It developed from a lack of arable land and the immediate need for more agricultural output. Dry farm land is on the edges of the valley or at higher elevations to take advantage of heavier precipitation and cooler summer temperatures.

Only a few crops are produced in quantity on dry farms, wheat being the predominant crop. Both winter and spring wheat are produced. About eighty-five percent of the total winter wheat crop is planted on dry farms. If winterkill on winter wheat is heavy, a higher percentage of spring wheat is planted on non-irrigated land. Other crops produced on dry farms are alfalfa hay, wild hay, barley, oats, corn and rye. In Utah, ninety-three percent of cultivated dry farms is in the northern part of the state -- primarily Box Elder, Cache and Juab counties -- with concentrations in the southeastern corner of the state as well. The first dry farm experiment occurred in 1863 in the area known as Bear River City. Scandinavian immigrants turned the alkaline water of Malad Creek onto their crops and the crops failed. In desperation, they dug up sage brush, planted grain, and waited for the results. Surprisingly, the crops gave a fair yield. A year or two later, Christopher Layton, an early pioneer, plowed land on the Sand Ridge between Salt Lake City and Ogden. He successfully grew wheat in the sandy soil. Since that time dry farming has become an established practice in Utah.

Dry farming was practiced in Tooele County as early as 1877. From 1879 to 1880, Joshua Salisbury and George L. Farrell began dry farm experiments in the Cache Valley. Dry farming became thoroughly established in the northern part of the state in the 1880s. Successful attempts were also made in the San Juan area in the late 1880s. In 1887, the passage of the Hatch Act provided for the creation of agricultural experiment stations in all the states and territories. It initiated a new era for agriculture. It provided for the application of modern scientific techniques to crop production for the first time in geographical areas with limited rainfall.

At the Utah Station during 1894 and 1895, the most important work was the possible conquest of the sagebrush deserts of the Great Basin without using irrigation. In 1896, plans were presented for experiments on the principles of dry farming and were carried into effect four years later. In 1901, John A. Widtsoe and L. A. Merrill investigated dry farming practices in the state. The study was carried out to determine if the industry could be pursued or extended. On the basis of these observations and the use of established principles of the relation of water to soils and plants, the modern theory of dry farming was worked out. It was published in Bulletin 75 of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station in January of 1902, and is probably the first systematic presentation of the principles of dry farming.

In 1903 the legislature appropriated $12,500.00 for the establishment and maintenance of six experimental dry farms cf forty acres each in different parts of the state. These farmc`have done much to stimulate the growth of dry farming. Since dry farming experiments began in Utah in 1901, it has been a leading subject of study at Utah State University in Logan. The western states created the first Dry Farming Congress in 1907 and held its first meeting in Denver. It became a forum to answer questions, hold exhibits and discuss dry farming problems. The second meeting was held in Salt Lake City in 1908.

There were other factors that aided in the development of the dry farming industry; such as cooperative farming, brought on by mining codes, real estate and water rights laws; and the building of roads, bridges and irrigation works. State and federal financial aid such as seed loans and loans from Federal Lank Banks have all contributed to the growth and development of dry farming.

Farming has always been an important aspect of Utah's economic life. Of the total acres in Utah, 4.1 percent is cultivated cropland. In 1850, there were 926 farms of approximately 51 acres each. By 1900 the number had increased to 19,387 farms. In the 1920s dry farms had a very poor crop production of winter wheat due to late but ample snowfall that inhibited even crop growth. By the 1930s Utah's agricultural economy was already in a depressed condition due to high grain prices following World War I. The decline of these prices caused a farm depression which was aggravated by the drought of 1934. However, farming continued to be a major economic source in Utah with a high of 28,500 farms in 1940. By the 1960s the numbers had dropped significantly to 15,500 in 1967. Dry farm acreage composed 37 percent of the total acres worked. In 1988 the total number of farms in Utah was 13,300 with an average of 850 acres each. Of the total cropland, 2,028,537 acres, 43 percent was utilized by dry farming.

See: John A. Widtsoe, Dryfarming A System of Agriculture. New York, New York: The Macmillian Company, 1911.