Preparing for widespread drought

Dryland Farming-Palouse

by Catherine Haug, August 11, 2012

(Photo, right, from Wikipedia)

We’ve all heard about the disastrous drought in the high plains and midwest portions of our country – from Nebraska to Texas; Colorado to Kentucky. Just the other day, the Daily Interlake carried an article about the drying and heating up of rivers in Nebraska and Iowa, a problem that is cooking fish to death as the streams exceed 90° F.

While we haven’t yet felt the drought here in NW Montana (and the rest of the Pacific NW), that doesn’t mean that we won’t feel it in future years. Yes, it’s hard to look at the high water in our reservoirs and lakes, and think that a drought could happen. But our part of the state did experience drought during the dust bowl years.

As the drought conditions spread to more states, including ours, how will we cope? How will we feed and water our livestock? How will we nurture our gardens? Will our water supplies hold up? Where will our food come from?

Coping with food & water shortages

It is during times of drought and food shortages that the importance of a strong community really becomes evident. Neighbor helping neighbor, not only for procurement of food and water, but also for security and protection. A strong local food production system is mandatory in such situations, because we will no longer be able to import foods from other regions that are also suffering from drought. This is a primary reason why I believe the formation of the Montana Co-op is so timely (see also my recent posts Montana Co-op seeking new member-owners and Montana Coop: the Regional Food Hub Distribution Plan).

Dryland food production

At least some members of our community need to become familiar with dry-land food production, and then guide and educate the rest of us. Here are a few key points:

  • A key factor in conserving moisture in the soil is to practice a no-tillage planting system, because tilling increases the amount of evaporation, and leave at least 30% of crop residue as ground cover to reduce evaporation. 50% of crop residue cover is generally considered optimal. (1)
  • Crop rotation schemes are also important, planting crops that need more water when rainfall is more likely. (1)
  • Consider also crops and livestock that are suitable for arid, dryland regions. See for listings.(2)
  • Investigate some permaculture techniques such as swales, to guide rainfall where you want it, or to where you can store it, avoiding run-off.

See also: Prairie Heritage Farm: Dryland farming for grains and vegetables (this farm is in Big Sandy, Montana)

Rainwater & Graywater collection & use

We should also consider setting up rainwater collection systems from the roofs of our homes and outbuildings, and greywater collection & reuse. See my earlier article Water Conservation, Rainwater, Gray Water; Sources & Info for lots more on this topic.

Drought Info and Assistance

Check out Sen. Tester’s Drought Resources website for lots of good links pertinent to the topics of:

  • Drought tracking (maps, forecasts and info)
  • Drought assistance (several USDA programs)
  • Feed shortages (for livestock) in Montana


  1. Dryland Cropping Systems – FAQs
  2. Dryland Farming: Crops & Techniques for Arid Regions
  3. Rainwater Harvesting Systems for Montana
  4. Source Book for Green and Sustainable Living
  5. Montana Watershed Coordination Council
  6. Harvesting
  7. Sen. Tester’s Drought Resources website

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