Farming which meets the basic needs of the farmer and family
A Bakweri farmer working on his taro field on the slopes of Mount Cameroon (2005)
Subsistence farmers selling their produce
Agriculture in Vietnam

Subsistence agriculture occurs when farmers grow food crops to meet the needs of themselves and their families on smallholdings.[1] Subsistence agriculturalists target farm output for survival and for mostly local requirements, with little or no surplus. Planting decisions occur principally with an eye toward what the family will need during the coming year, and only secondarily toward market prices.[1] Tony Waters, a professor of sociology, defines "subsistence peasants" as "people who grow what they eat, build their own houses, and live without regularly making purchases in the marketplace."[2]: 2 

Despite the self-sufficiency in subsistence farming, today most subsistence farmers also participate in trade to some degree. Although their amount of trade as measured in cash is less than that of consumers in countries with modern complex markets, they use these markets mainly to obtain goods not to support income for food. This is usually for goods that are not necessary for survival, which may include sugar, iron roofing-sheets, bicycles, used clothing, and so forth. Many have important trade contacts and trade items that they can produce because of their special skills or special access to resources valued in the marketplace.[3]

Most subsistence farmers today operate in developing countries.[3] Subsistence agriculture generally features: small capital/finance requirements, mixed cropping, limited use of agrochemicals (e.g. pesticides and fertilizer), unimproved varieties of crops and animals, little or no surplus yield for sale, use of crude/traditional tools (e.g. hoes, machetes, and cutlasses), mainly the production of food crops, small scattered plots of land, reliance on unskilled labor (often family members), and (generally) low yields.


Subsistence agriculture was the dominant mode of production in the world until recently, when market-based capitalism became widespread.[4]

Subsistence agriculture largely disappeared in Europe by the beginning of the twentieth century. It began to decrease in North America with the movement of sharecroppers and tenant farmers out of the American South and Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s.[2][page needed] In Central and Eastern Europe, semi-subsistence agriculture reappeared within the transition economy after 1990 but declined in significance (or disappeared) in most countries by the accession to the EU in 2004 or 2007.[5]

Areas where subsistence farming is largely practiced today, such as India and other regions in Asia, have seen a recent decline in the practice. This is due to processes such as urbanization, transformation of land in rural areas, and integration of capitalist forms of farming.[6]

Contemporary practices

Subsistence farming continues today in large parts of rural Africa,[7] and parts of Asia and Latin America. In 2015, about 2 billion people (slightly more than 25% of the world's population) in 500 million households living in rural areas of developing nations survive as "smallholder" farmers, working less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land.[8] Around 98% of China's farmers work on small farms, and China accounts for around half of the total world farms.[8] In India, 80% of the total farmers are smallholder farmers; Ethiopia and Asia have almost 90% being small; while Mexico and Brazil recorded having 50% and 20% being small.[8]

Types of subsistence farming

Shifting agriculture

In this type of farming, a patch of forest land is cleared by a combination of felling (chopping down) and burning, and crops are grown. After 2–3 years the fertility of the soil begins to decline, the land is abandoned and the farmer moves to clear a fresh piece of land elsewhere in the forest as the process continues.[9] While the land is left fallow the forest regrows in the cleared area and soil fertility and biomass is restored. After a decade or more, the farmer may return to the first piece of land. This form of agriculture is sustainable at low population densities, but higher population loads require more frequent clearing which prevents soil fertility from recovering, opens up more of the forest canopy, and encourages scrub at the expense of large trees, eventually resulting in deforestation and soil erosion.[10] Shifting cultivation is called dredd in India, ladang in Indonesia, milpa in Central America and Mexico and jhumming in North East India.

Primitive farming

While this ”slash-and-burn” technique may describe the method for opening new land, commonly the farmers in question have in existence at the same time smaller fields, sometimes merely gardens, near the homestead there they practice intensive ”non-shifting" techniques until shortage of fields where they can employ "slash and burn" to clear land and (by the burning) provide fertilizer (ash). Such gardens near the homestead often regularly receive household refuse, and the manure of any household, chickens or goats are initially thrown into compost piles just to get them out of the way. However, such farmers often recognize the value of such compost and apply it regularly to their smaller fields. They also may irrigate part of such fields if they are near a source of water.[citation needed]

In some areas of tropical Africa, at least, such smaller fields may be ones in which crops are grown on raised beds. Thus farmers practicing ”slash and burn” agriculture are often much more sophisticated agriculturalists than the term "slash and burn" subsistence farmers suggests.[citation needed]

Nomadic herding

In this type of farming people migrate along with their animals from one place to another in search of fodder for their animals. Generally they rear cattle, sheep, goats, camels and/or yaks for milk, skin, meat and wool.[11] This way of life is common in parts of central and western Asia, India, east and southwest Africa and northern Eurasia. Examples are the nomadic Bhotiyas and Gujjars of the Himalayas. They carry their belongings, such as tents, etc., on the backs of donkeys, horses, and camels.[12] In mountainous regions, like Tibet and the Andes, yak and llama are reared. Reindeer are the livestock in arctic and sub-arctic areas. Sheep, goats, and camels are common animals, and cattle and horses are also important.[11][13]

Intensive subsistence farming

In intensive subsistence agriculture, the farmer cultivates a small plot of land using simple tools and more labour.[14] Climate with large number of days with sunshine and fertile soils, permits growing of more than one crop annually on the same plot. Farmers use their small land holdings to produce enough for their local consumption, while remaining produce is used for exchange against other goods. It results in much more food being produced per acre compared to other subsistence patterns. In the most intensive situation, farmers may even create terraces along steep hillsides to cultivate rice paddies. Such fields are found in densely populated parts of Asia, such as in the Philippines. They may also intensify by using manure, artificial irrigation and animal waste as fertilizer. Intensive subsistence farming is prevalent in the thickly populated areas of the monsoon regions of south, southwest, and southeast Asia.[14]

Poverty alleviation

Subsistence agriculture can be used as a poverty alleviation strategy, specifically as a safety net for food-price shocks and for food security. Poor countries are limited in fiscal and institutional resources that would allow them to contain rises in domestic prices as well as to manage social assistance programs, which is often because they are using policy tools that are intended for middle- and high-income countries.[15] Low-income countries tend to have populations in which 80% of poor are in rural areas and more than 90% of rural households have access to land, yet a majority of these rural poor have insufficient access to food.[15] Subsistence agriculture can be used in low-income countries as a part of policy responses to a food crisis in the short and medium term, and provide a safety net for the poor in these countries.[15]

See also


  1. ^ a b Bisht, I. S.; Pandravada, S. R.; Rana, J. C.; Malik, S. K.; Singh, Archna; Singh, P. B.; Ahmed, Firoz; Bansal, K. C. (2014-09-14). "Subsistence Farming, Agrobiodiversity, and Sustainable Agriculture: A Case Study". Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. 38 (8): 890–912. doi:10.1080/21683565.2014.901273. ISSN 2168-3565. S2CID 154197444.
  2. ^ a b Waters, Tony (2008). The persistence of subsistence agriculture : life beneath the level of the marketplace. Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-5876-0. OCLC 839303290.
  3. ^ a b Miracle, Marvin P. (1968). "Subsistence Agriculture: Analytical Problems and Alternative Concepts". American Journal of Agricultural Economics. 50 (2): 292–310. doi:10.2307/1237543. JSTOR 1237543.
  4. ^ George Reisman. "Capitalism" (1990), p.16
  5. ^ Steffen Abele and Klaus Frohberg (Eds.). "Subsistence Agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe: How to Break the Vicious Circle?" Studies on the Agricultural and Food Sector in Central and Eastern Europe. IAMO, 2003. Archived 2011-07-19 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Majumdar, Koustab (2020-04-09). "Rural Transformation in India: Deagrarianization and the Transition from a Farming to Non-farming Economy". Journal of Developing Societies. 36 (2): 182–205. doi:10.1177/0169796x20912631. ISSN 0169-796X.
  7. ^ Goran Hyden. Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1980.
  8. ^ a b c Rapsomanikis, George (2015). "The economic lives of smallholder farmers" (PDF). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. p. 9. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-05-04. Retrieved 2018-01-11. About two-thirds of the developing world’s 3 billion rural people live in about 475 million small farm households, working on land plots smaller than 2 hectares.
  9. ^ "Community Forestry: Forestry Note 8". Retrieved 2020-05-30.
  10. ^ "Soil Erosion from Shifting Cultivation and Other Smallholder Land Use in Sarawak, Malaysia". Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment. 4 (42).
  11. ^ a b Miggelbrink, Judith. (2016). Nomadic and indigenous spaces : productions and cognitions. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-315-59843-7. OCLC 953047010.
  12. ^ Hymer, Stephen (Spring 2018). "Economic Forms in Pre-Colonial Ghana". Economic History Association. 30 (1): 33–50. doi:10.1017/S0022050700078578. hdl:10419/160011. JSTOR 2116722.
  13. ^ Miggelbrink, Judith, editor. Habeck, Joachim Otto, editor. Mazzullo, Nuccio, editor. Koch, Peter, editor. (15 November 2016). Nomadic and indigenous spaces : productions and cognitions. ISBN 978-1-138-26721-3. OCLC 1010537015. {{cite book}}: |last= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ a b Vaughn, Sharon; Wanzek, Jeanne (May 2014). "Intensive Interventions in Reading for Students with Reading Disabilities: Meaningful Impacts". Learning Disabilities Research & Practice. 29 (2): 46–53. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12031. ISSN 0938-8982. PMC 4043370. PMID 24910504.
  15. ^ a b c de Janvry, Alain; Sadoulet, Elisabeth (2011-06-01). "Subsistence farming as a safety net for food-price shocks". Development in Practice. 21 (4–5): 472–480. doi:10.1080/09614524.2011.561292. ISSN 0961-4524. S2CID 13891983.

Further reading