Book Review: “The Drought-Resilient Farm”, by Dale Strickler


(image credit: “drought” by dasroofless is licensed under Creative Commons – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In May 2015 a tornado hit Dale Strickler’s hometown and delivered four and a half inches of rain in 20 minutes.

While all of the neighbouring farms had water pouring off the field in several-foot-wide streams – Strickler’s field absorbed every drop of water.

For him this was the proof that his several-decade quest to improve land management and be better able to prepare for, avoid, and weather drought was paying off.

His techniques worked.

This book is a summary and synthesis of collected wisdom.


Strickler grew up on a farm in Kansas. In his youth he often watched his father work frustratingly hard on the family farm, only to have their crop ruined by drought. Strickler became an agronomist to better understand how to prevent, avoid, and combat drought. Decades later – after years of experience, experiments, education, and interviewing many drought survivors – he has been able to prove his techniques work. In one example, during a massive, historical drought in 2012, his fields were retaining moisture and his crops produced normal yields, while across the fence neighbour farm crops were dying.


“The Drought-Resilient Farm” is a short, easy read. But the techniques and attitude changes it contains are invaluable.

As Strickler puts it himself, the recipe to avoid drought is deceptively simple:

  1. “Get water in”: Increase infiltration of rainfall into the soil, and decrease runoff. Capture the water you get.
  2. “Keep water in”: Increase the amount of water the soil can store.
  3. “Get water out”: Help the right plants use the water efficiently, when needed.

“Like so many other worthwhile endeavors, however, the devil is in the details”.

Proactive Prevention

Strickler’s book is divided into three parts. The first part details the proactive steps you can take to capture water, retain water, and use it well. This includes a practice of no-till (not breaking up the land). Despite some belief – tilling soil actually decreases its ability to absorb moisture. It also destroys organic matter. Strickler advises not tilling.

Next on the list is employing mulch: “Perhaps no other practice improves water movement into the soil surface more effectively than creating and maintaining a mulch layer”. Mulch absorbs the energy from falling rain, and prevents the impact from destroying the soil surface. This allows water to continue down into the soil when pore spaces are intact.

Finally Strickler is an avid fan of cover crops – using these to retain soil moisture; create a layer of surface mulch; and have a backup source for feed when needed. He goes into detail about many other practices – from diagrams of landforming terraces, retention dams, and vertical mulching; to the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi.

Strickler points to a very visible experiment – the USDA Rainfall Simulator – that makes it easy to see the results of his techniques. In one jar with common corn-growing agriculture techniques almost no water reaches below the soil. In another jar that follows Strickler’s regimen of soil care, nearly all of the water is kept.

On the topic of keeping water inside the soil, Strickler has advice about removing weeds (so they don’t use or transpire the moisture); planting perennials for windbreaks; interseeding plant types; and more uses for cover crops. He has been able to expand his soil’s water supply from storing 16 days of water during the peak summer season to storing 53 days of water. As you can imagine this allows plants to go much longer without rain before getting stressed or needing irrigation.

Finally Strickler discusses growing good, deep roots and breaking up the soil. He discusses *not* tearing up the land with subsoilers or machines; for the main limit on root growth depth is actually oxygen penetration. He has a good discussion on growing crops like radishes with large taproots to help break up the soil and get oxygen down inside.

Using What You Have

Part 2 of the book discusses management strategies for livestock, water supply, and feed. Strickler has many useful techniques to make the most of your land, plant, and feed resources in the correct order to avoid overgrazing and lengthen your drought-tolerance window. Again this includes interseeding various crops. Strickler’s strategies are a solid demonstration of the possible beneficial partnerships between plants, animals, and human stewards where resources can be reused and recycled, and the whole is better than the sum of the parts.

Finally Strickler concludes his book with a practical checklist of actions to take before, during, and after a drought to minimize impact. He provides a high-level plan for future agriculture in drought-prone areas. Each of the chapters ends with a clear and useful chapter summary that makes it easy to recall and use the important tips.

A Positive View For The Future

Strickler’s book is uplifting and encouraging: he views drought not as an unavoidable, entirely natural disaster; but as something mostly man-made. He lists the main causes of drought as destruction of vegetation and bad agricultural practice. This is encouraging – it suggests that we do indeed have the ability to improve our situation and reduce or avoid disaster ourselves, by planning smartly, and then working hard. It points to an opportunity for us to be good stewards of the earth. Indeed: it is telling that 95% of the book’s content deals with pre-planning and preparations to take *beforehand*, to mitigate drought and avoid it entirely. The remaining 5% of content is actions to take during the actual drought.

As someone who grew up on a farm – I highly recommend this book to anyone who has land, livestock, or access to a garden. All of the advice makes sense and is doable. Perhaps you can apply it in a community garden near you. I hope that by sharing the spirit and proven techniques of this book I can do a small part to raise awareness and help the whole planet improve resilience.

(edit: fix typo; add extra section header for easier reading)


  • Comments (13)

    • 5

      In May 2015 a tornado hit Dale Strickler’s hometown and delivered four and a half inches of rain in 20 minutes.

      While all of the neighbouring farms had water pouring off the field in several-foot-wide streams – Strickler’s field absorbed every drop of water.

      Sorry, but I’d have to see that to believe that.  Such storms, or similar are rather common here in north Mississippi.  Not uncommon for us to get that much rain as a storm passes through, but usually it might take the storm 1-2 hours to drop that much rain.  Where I live used to be a beach millions of years ago and our soil is very sandy.  Water percolates thru it rather rapidly.  I also have an acre pond setup to collect runoff. But even then, I’ll get runoff.  So I have a hard time believing an entire property could collect & retain every bit of that much rainfall coming that quick.

      Around here we call such a rain a gully wash… because the runoff created gullies on the hillsides.  The runoff can overload drainage pipes & cause blowouts when more water comes thru than it can handle.  Just this past week we had such a rain and I had considerable damage to my drive heading down the hill to my horses.  Some of the ditches were somewhat clogged with leaves and that caused water to get on the drive.  A friend down the road had to miss a day’s work because he had to make repairs where culverts washed out. He has a water gauge that will measure up to 5 inches and it was overflowing.

      One of the problems was our ground was already saturated prior to the heavy rain.  We have had over a week of rainy weather nonstop.  Every day we received rain.  So even my sandy soil was saturated and my pond was completely full.  So with this rain, all the runoff went into the pond… and promptly out the spillway.

      It is almost unbelievable how much water comes from such a storm.  I’ve had such a storm hit in the summer when my one acre pond was around 6 feet low, and that single storm can fill the pond back up.  That is a lot of runoff from sandy soil.

      • 2

        Hello, thank you for sharing your experience. This is fascinating to hear. And kudos for thinking critically about claims. You are right; I am taking his word for the events as they happened. I have never experienced a gully wash that large.

        Kudos on the acre pond. Was that man-made, or did it exist when you got there?

        How similar are the farming practices in your area – is it common to do or not do tillage, cover crops, and continual mulch? Do you have to do anything else to deal with drought?

      • 4

        Don’t know if I’m thinking critically… but I just doubt that claim.  Anyone who has experienced a gully wash would too.  Around here, a gully wash would occur when you received 2 inches of rain in an hour.  2-4 inches of rain in an hour is a huge storm.  I’ve never even heard of 4 1/2 inches in 20 minutes.  Then to state his fields absorbed every bit is unbelievable to me.  Like I said, I’d have to see proof.

        Even your best soils can only absorb so much water and they don’t do it quickly. The percolation rate is influenced by how moist your soil already is, slope of the property and ground cover.   Sandy soils like mine have the highest percolation rate and that is 1 to 8 inches per hour.  Silty and loam soils, which are considered the best soils, percolate at less than 1 inch an hour.  Clay soils do so at around a tenth of an inch an hour.  His fields would have had to percolated at the rate of 13 1/2 inches per hour.  Does that sound possible?

        Then if your ground is already saturated from prior rains, like mine were this past week, you get massive runoff from a heavy rain and my rain, though very heavy, was nowhere near 4 1/2 inches in 20 minutes.  Mater of fact, in the next hour or so I’m getting on my tractor to repair water damage to my drive down the hill.

        I don’t farm my property.  Most of my 20 acres is pasture & yards.  My orchard is over an acre but it too is covered in pasture grass.  My garden is relatively small.  But everyone around here has to manage their property to handle heavy rains.  We get them all the time and with the change in climate, we get very heavy gully washes much more often nowadays.  That involves proper ditches, culverts and ensuring you have somewhere for that water to go.  We allow the ditches to be natural, will lots of trees to hold the soil in place.  My pond is located in the part of my property where all water eventually drains to.  

        My pond was man made.  In the first picture, you can see the ditch with the trees in it running between my upper property and the lower pasture.  All runoff from my property heads toward that ditch.  So we dug the pond there to allow runoff to get captured and keep the pond with plenty of water.  With the pond already full today, any future runoff will run thru the pond and out the spillway… and off my property.

        pond 1

        pond 2

        pond 3

        pond 4


        Just took this pic to show elevation of house & upper property down to the pond.

        pond 5

        As far as dealing with drought, all trees in my orchard and all blueberries, blackberries & muscadines are on drip irrigation.  Drip irrigation is a great tool for drought.  No water is wasted.  My beds around the house as well as other fruit trees in my front yard likewise are on drip irrigation.  My garden is small enough that I just water by hand.  I have my own well plus keep a spare Grundfos Flex well pump in storage in a Faraday enclosure.  It can run directly off of my solar panels.

        I’m certainly no expert but have many years experience dealing with soils and water runoff.  Plus, while in the School of Forestry at Mississippi State, I had several classes in soils and dendrology.  Where I live in north Mississippi gets lots of rain and heavy gully washes aren’t unusual.  We get the storms because our location is often where the warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico runs into the cool, dry air from the north.  Below is a screen shot of a typical storm that hits our area.  Many storms line up just like this and where you see red, it is raining at around 2 inches an hour.


    • 4

      Thank you for the review.  I can believe the claims.  A companion book might be “Holistic Management” by Allan Savory.  Savory has devoted his life to reversing and preventing desertification and gives a clear understanding of water cycles, land that is “over rested”, how soil crusts over with algae, preventing infiltration of rainwater, impact of rain on bare ground, using grazing animal pressure to break up crusting, crush woody growth and promote the dividing of grass crowns to produce more grass.  Goes hand in hand with management intensive grazing.  There are other resources out there for capturing every drop of rain.  I think Permaculture focuses on that.

      I will look into getting this book.  We have a lot of rain in the PNW, but not usually at the time of year we really need it.  Barely enough water pressure to water the garden.

      • 1

        Thank you very much for the recommendation. I will check out this book.

    • 4

      This was very well written! 

      This book is definitely going to go onto my resource library shelf, I haven’t had to worry about drought so far in my little home garden but doesn’t mean there could be an upcoming dry year or climate change adjusts my growing conditions. Implementing some of these techniques could also just help the average garden to be more water efficient and utilize every drop.

      • 3

        Ollie, there is a garden-scale book, which I believe is recommended by TP, called “Gardening when it Counts” by Steve Solomon.  I don’t have the book anymore but I believe there’s a fair bit about dry gardening.  I should probably get another copy.

      • 3

        >“Gardening when it Counts”

        Yes I believe this is recommended on the survival gardening article. It is quite good.

      • 2

        Thank you for the recommendation. Since seeing this post I have been having dry gardening on the mind and like learning more about how to overcome it.

      • 3

        Thank you for the kind words. At the home garden level, Strickler mentions using Ollas for irrigation – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olla#Use_in_irrigation

        The advantage is that water only transfers out of the pot when the surrounding soil is dry enough to need it. I have never personally tried these but they look interesting.

      • 4

        FYI I used an Olla in my backyard garden last year and wrote about it here Review: Back to the Roots fabric raised garden bed, self-watering Olla system, and organic seeds

      • 3

        Oh thank you. I was actually just reading that same link you posted the other day. Very interesting to hear about your experiences. Good luck figuring out a good setup for the next season.

    • 2

      Which book to buy? The Drought-Resilient Farm OR The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil? What are the differences?