By Kay Watt
A miller’s daughter spun gold thread from hay. Stone soup fed an entire town. A farmer grew tons of juicy melons in one of the harshest desert climates in the Americas. In each story, something is created from nothing. Of the three, only the story of the Chihuahuan melon farmer is neither fairy tale nor parable. Centuries-old technology known as olla irrigation breathes life into acres of melon vines, enabling them to thrive in an otherwise inhospitable environment.
The paltry 9 inches of annual rainfall is harnessed to support a robust agricultural business. Judicious water use and resource conservation are the main tenets of desert farming worldwide, transforming arid scrubland and desert margins into flourishing and resilient farmsteads.
Gary Nabhan is a conservation scientist, ecologist, and farmer; he is intimately familiar with the challenges faced by traditional desert agricultural communities. He visits with farmers in Saharan oases and the margins of the Gobi Desert, as well as other desert regions, learning the techniques and adaptations that have sustained life in extreme environments for thousands of years.
A full third of the land on our planet is desert or semi-desert, receiving on average less than 20 inches of rainfall per year (1). Over the tens of thousands of years of human migration and agricultural evolution, societies have found elegant and simple solutions to living in water-compromised environments. These solutions are increasingly relevant as countries experience progressively hotter average temperatures and face dwindling water resources.
Dramatic changes are already being witnessed by ecologists and experienced by farmers. Pests such as bark beetles have been able to spread without a cold-weather check, damaging and killing thousands of trees in U.S. and European forests.
Severe drought conditions in the United States this year have left 385,000 acres of farmland fallow in California alone ( 2). Desert vegetation has adapted to its environment over millennia. Each native species contains a wealth of evolutionarily derived resiliencies in form and function. Scientists and traditional farmers have drawn on these botanical success stories to Shape physical farmland, advance water harvesting, and create hardy agricultural ecosystems.
Biomimicry of living desert systems in particular has been a noted success, especially the use of nurse trees to create microenvironments in which crops can blossom.