Desert farming generally relies on irrigation, as it is the easiest way to make a desert bloom. In California, the Imperial Valley is a good example of what can be done. Australia and the Horn of Africa are also places with interesting desert agriculture.
The Native Americans practicing this agriculture included the ancient and no longer present Anasazi, the long-present Hopi, the Tewa, Zuni, and many other regional tribes, including the relatively recently arriving (about 1000 to 1400 CE) Navajo. These various tribes were characterized generally by the Spanish occupiers of the region as Sinagua Indians, sinagua meaning "without water", although this term is not applied to the modern Native Americans of the region.
Owing to the great dependence upon weather, an element considered to be beyond human control, substantial religious beliefs, rites, and prayer evolved around the growing of crops, and in particular the growing of the four principal corn types of the region, characterized by their colors: red, yellow, blue, and white. The presence of corn as a spiritual symbol can often be seen in the hands of the "Yeh" spirit figures represented in Navajo rugs, in the rituals associated with the "Corn Maiden" and other kachinas of the Hopi, and in various fetish objects of tribes of the region.
American Indians in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere relied both on irrigation and "Ak-Chin" farming—a type of farming that depended on "washes" (the seasonal flood plains by winter snows and summer rains). The Ak-Chin people employed this natural form of irrigation by planting downslope from a wash, allowing floodwaters to slide over their crops.
In the Salt River Valley, now characterized by Maricopa County, Arizona, a vast canal system was created and maintined from about 600 AD to 1450 AD. Several hundred miles of canals fed crops of the area surrounding Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler and Mesa, Arizona. Unfortunately, the intense irrigation increased the salinity of the topsoil, making it not longer fit for the growing of crops. This seems to have contributed to the abandonment of the canals and the adoption of Ak-Chin farming.
The ancient canals served as a model for modern irrigation engineers, with the earliest "modern" historic canals being formed largely by cleaning out the Hohokam canals or being laid out over the top of ancient canals. The ancient ruins and canals of the Hohokam Indians were a source of pride to the early settlers who envisioned their new agricultural society rising as the mythical phoenix bird from the ashes of Hohokam society, hence the name Phoenix, Arizona. The canal system is especially impressive because it was built without the use of metal implements or the wheel. It took remarkable knowledge of geography and hydrology for ancient engineers to lay out the canals, but it also took remarkable socio-political organization to plan workforce deployment, including meeting the physical needs of laborers and their families as well as maintaining and administering the water resources.
Middle Eastern countries are also trying to develop sustainable desert farming.
- Agriculture in the prehistoric Southwest
- Arid-zone agriculture
- Desert greening
- Dryland farming
- Seawater greenhouse
- Worster, Donald. "Comparing Papago and Hohokam irrigation". Waterhistory.org. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
- O'Bar, Scott, (2013). Alternative Crops for Drylands - Proactively Adapting to Climate Change and Water Shortages. Amaigabe Press, Santa Barbara, USA ISBN 978-0-9882822-0-9
- P. Koohafkan and B.A. Stewart, Water and Cereals in Drylands published by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Earthscan