The exponential growth in world population is feeding a steadily increasing global need for arable farmland, a resource that is already in high demand. This trend has led to increased farming on subprime arid and semi-arid lands, where limited availability of water and a host of environmental stresses often severely reduce crop productivity. The conventional approach to mitigating the abiotic stresses associated with arid climes is to breed for stress-tolerant cultivars, a time and labor intensive venture that often neglects the complex ecological context of the soil environment in which the crop is grown. In recent years, studies have attempted to identify microbial symbionts capable of conferring the same stress-tolerance to their plant hosts, and new developments in genomic technologies have greatly facilitated such research. Here, we highlight many of the advantages of these symbiont-based approaches and argue in favor of the broader recognition of crop species as ecological niches for a diverse community of microorganisms that function in concert with their plant hosts and each other to thrive under fluctuating environmental conditions.