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Desert Agriculture: Growing Against the Grain

In the realm of desert agriculture, the remarkable ability of farmers to cultivate crops in the most arid landscapes is nothing short of extraordinary. Far from being a mere survivalist endeavor, farming in the desert has evolved into a rapidly expanding industry, matching the vigorous pace of the crops it nurtures.

The desert farming market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.22% between 2023 and 2029. For comparison, the CAGR for the entire agriculture market during that period is only 5.66%.

Due to land scarcity, there’s a myriad of benefits to being able to grow crops in an intense desert environment. Whether through outdoor farming methods or specialized hydroponic systems, you’d be surprised with how much you can grow in the most arid and inhospitable of environments.

In this blog, we’ll discuss the ways in which people have historically cultivated crops in arid desert climates, the methods used, and how modern farmers can cultivate crops without soil, even in extreme environments.

Two tractors on a wheat farm harvest the fully-grown grain.
While farmers today have more advanced machinery and technology compared to those that cultivated in the past, desert agriculture still requires a careful understanding of the risks inherent to growing in arid climates.

How Does Desert Crop Cultivation Work?

There are several ways that people have cultivated crops in the desert. For instance, the earliest known desert farming activity took place in the Negev Desert around 5000 B.C., when there were only 40 million people in the worldwide population. There, farmers started developing crops in depressions that collected runoff water, building terraces and systems to distribute water runoff.

Today, desert farming is essential to regions in the Middle East and North Africa, the southwestern United States, and Australia. But how does it work?

Let’s examine California’s Imperial Valley and Arizona’s Salt River Valley, both intensely irrigated area of the American southwest for some examples of desert agriculture. Through this examination, we’ll be able to take away some key lessons for successfully cultivating crops in arid regions.

Imperial Valley’s Desert Fields

In Imperial Valley, the practice of growing crops is relatively new. It’s been the lifeblood of the residents of the region since commercial cultivation began in the 20th century. Settlers from around the world came to the Sonoran Desert Valley to grow in the mineral rich soil of an unlikely oasis. Even through the region is one of the hottest and most arid in the United States, the soil presented too much opportunity to dissuade eager farmers.

The construction of the All-American Canal was completed in 1942, providing the region with much needed water flows. Today, the number of canals that branch off the All-American Canal is over a hundred. This development set the stage for the region’s transformation from unproductive desert to cultivated farmland.

Through the establishment of an intensive irrigation system, Imperial Valley went from a desolate region without significant human habitation to an essential sector of the American agricultural economy. Each winter, the valley produces nearly 2/3 of the country’s vegetable consumption.

However, critics argue that the cultivation of the region is dangerously unsustainable, as conflicts over the ownership of the Colorado River’s thinning flows threaten to upend the unsteady balance that the region’s economy relies on.

In light of this uncertain future, farmers are being rewarded for cutting their water use, and water conservation strategies attempt to stem the flow. Automated irrigation systems schedule cycles according to the weather to prevent excessive evaporation and drip irrigation systems make more efficient use of water by trickling a precise amount of water to each plant.

The problem? These changes aren’t cheap, and their implementation won’t guarantee the future of farming in the valley if legislators and decision makers don’t provide support to struggling small farmers.

Generations of Cultivation in the Salt River Valley

The next region we’ll take a look at has been growing desert crops since 600 AD, using a vast canal system that fed crops in areas of modern-day Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler and Mesa. The Salt River Valley system was truly a marvel for its time, as it was created without the assistance of metal tools or wheels.

The intensive irrigation system eventually destabilized the region’s farming environment, leading to the adoption of Ak-Chin farming (also called monsoon farming), relying on the region’s seasonal rains instead of a formalized irrigation system.

Modern irrigation engineers laid the region’s current irrigation lines over the top of that ancient system, demonstrating the incredible foresight of the system’s designers, who accounted for the region’s geography and hydrology.

A dirt crossroads in between plots on a desert agriculture farm.
Desert agriculture farmers need to carefully consider how their growing methods may affect the surrounding environment.

Why Should We Cultivate Crops in The Desert?

With all the struggles that those attempting to cultivate crops in the desert face, you may wonder, “Why even bother?”

Well, while every farmer would prefer to cultivate in an area with the richest soil and deepest water reservoirs, the fact is that farmers need to provide urban centers with their produce to earn a profit. So while other areas might be more optimal for growth, farmers in arid areas still need to produce for nearby markets.

This necessitates farmers to carefully plan around their local environments, and sometimes those environments are hotter, dustier and drier than they’d prefer.

So while it’s unlikely that desert cultivation will ever go away, the ways in which they cultivate crops continue to evolve. Let’s look at some of the ways in which desert agriculture might change in the future to enable more sustainable production.

How Growers Can Practice Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture grows crops in a way that considers a holistic approach to grow in line with local conditions, not despite them. It’s an essential practice for growing in arid, low moisture environments, conserving water and restoring soil biodiversity.

Growers can use cover crops. These are plants that aren’t intended to be harvested, but instead keep the soil covered. They provide the soil with enriching organic matter that improves its nutrient quality.

Additionally, farmers can practice soil conservation by allowing fields to lay fallow, regenerating soil quality and conserving water that would have otherwise been used on that land.

By using methods of regenerative agriculture, farmers can ensure that the land they’re working on will stay efficient for much longer than it would if it was intensively farmed.

How Container Farms Grow Optimally in Arid Climates

Going beyond regenerative agriculture, hydroponic container farms provide a controlled environment for growing a wider variety of crops than would be available to traditional farmers. Through systems of controlled environment agriculture, hydroponic container farms let farmers grow against the grain of local environments, opening a world of possibilities for farmers to meet local needs in ways that haven’t been possible before.

Instead of soil, crops develop in grow media, and receive nutrients through a flowing stream of nutrient-rich solution. Housed inside a shipping container, temperature control and humidifier systems inside help stabilize the system through deserts’ volatile temperature and humidity shifts.

Our grower says that this is where hydroponic container farm systems can provide value in fickle environments, reducing the plant’s stress and increasing the growing efficiency of the entire crop.

While too much light can be a problem for crops growing outdoors in hot climates, container farms grow crops with high-powered grow lights that are able to evenly distribute full-spectrum light.

Additionally, because the system reuses nutrient solution, it allows for water efficient production that wouldn’t be possible in traditional soil-based systems.

Trees growing in desert agriculture.
From the Middle East to the American southwest, farmers have been cultivating crops in desert agriculture for centuries.

Summary

In conclusion, the thriving landscape of desert agriculture paints a picture of resilience, innovation and adaptation. The growth projected for the desert farming market underscores its increasing significance on a global scale.

Examining the historical roots of desert cultivation, exemplified by the Negev Desert and the Salt River Valley, reveals a continuum of ingenuity that has shaped these arid landscapes into fertile grounds for agricultural pursuits.

However, challenges loom large, especially in regions like California’s Imperial Valley, where water scarcity poses a threat to the delicate balance struck by intensive irrigation. As we navigate an uncertain future, the evolution of desert agriculture becomes pivotal, emphasizing the need for sustainable practices like regenerative agriculture.

The importance of adapting cultivation methods, as illustrated by hydroponic container farms, cannot be overstated, offering a glimpse into the future of farming that grows against the grain of conventional wisdom. While the hurdles are substantial, the determination of farmers to provide for urban centers and the continual evolution of cultivation techniques signal a promising trajectory for desert agriculture, where challenges are met with innovation, ensuring a sustainable and fruitful future.

Curious about how you can optimize your hydroponic growing option with a climate-controlled container farm? Contact us to discuss how a Pure Greens container farm can help you establish a secure, water-saving hydroponic system today.

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