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Subsistence Agriculture, Subsistence Farming Guide

Subsistence Agriculture, Subsistence Farming Guide

Introduction To Subsistence Agriculture:

The term “Subsistence agriculture” is referred to a aself-governing farming system in which the farmers primarily emphasise on growing food which is sufficient to feed themselves and their immediate family members. The output production is mostly for limited local requirements with little or no extra trade. The characteristic subsistence farm has a range of crops and animals needed by the family to feed and clothe themselves during the year. The decisions regarding planting are made principally with a vision towards what the family will need during the forthcoming year, and subsequently toward market prices. In other words, it can be said that, subsistence peasants are people who grow what they eat, build their own houses, and live without often buying in the marketplace.

Features of subsistence agriculture: 

The main characteristics and features of Subsistence Agriculture is as follows:

  1. It is usually practiced by subsistence farmers or peasants.

    2. The smaller area of land is involved.

    3. Use of local tools eg hoe, cutlass etc. is mostly prevalent.

    4. No specialization is required.

    5. Employment of unskilled labour is popular.

    6. The harvest returns are minor.

    7. Involvement of family labour is more
  2. The mainly production involves the production of food crops alone.

    9. The basic needs of the family is mostly in focus.

    10. There is hardly or no extra/surplus for sale.

    11. A mixed system of farming is usually experienced.


Cheap and Cost effective:

One of the benefits of Subsistence Agriculture is that it is cheap and cost effective. No requirement of huge investments as would otherwise have been needed by a commercial farmer is the prime reason for its cost effectiveness. The tools, kits and implements that are used are easy to obtain and mostly not expensive.

Non- employment of labour:

Another most important advantage of subsistence method of farming is that it does not require the employment or hiring of labour. The major source of labor are the kids and the immediate family members of the farmer. The effect is that the money resource is not consumed on labor. This being so, the money for employing/hiring labor is averted to take care of other demanding matters of the family.

Anorganised source of employment:

No specialized skill or higher level of education is required to become subsistence a farmer. All that is required is the ability to handle the apparatus, i.e. hoe and cutlass and to do farming and plantation according the traditional timing of the area. For this particular reason, it is easy for planters to become subsistence farmers.  .

Resource of food supply for the family:

The main advantage of Subsistence Agriculture is that it provides organized food for the family. In most of the families in the rural areas, for example, the main food source is the individual farms of the people. There, the basic staple food is available for use, which includes such supplies as cassava, plantain, maize, coco yam etc.

Helps in putting a check on rural-urban movement:

A number of people have lived in village for ages and depended on Subsistence Agriculture since then. The people in that case do not want to relocate to cities and live in terrible conditions since they cannot afford suitable accommodation. They find it preferable to stay back in the villages and live with the little they can get from the land. Such a choice helps them to stay back in the villages, thereby making a check on rural-urban drift.

Avoids foreign exchange:

The farming tools, kit and implements that are required for Subsistence Agriculture can be bought from the local market since they are locally made. There are village level local blacksmiths who can manufacture such simple tools and implements. There is, hence, no need for government to use uncommon foreign resources to import them. Such monies can therefore spend on more demanding national needs.

Read: Hydroponic Lettuce Farming In Greenhouse.

Types of Subsistence Agriculture 

  1. Primitive or Simple Subsistence Agriculture:

Primitive farming is the ancient form of agriculture and still widespread in some areas of the world. From simple gathering, some people have taken a move ‘upward’ on the economic stepladder by knowing the art of domesticating plants and their economy has progressed into a primitive form of cultivation.

This type of farming is done on self-financing basis and farmers grow food only for themselves and their immediate family members. Some small oversupplies may be either traded by barter or sold for liquid cash.

The subsequent economy is thus static and motionless with little chance for improvement or growth, but there is a high degree of rural independence and freedom because farmers are not dependent upon landlords or to trade centres.


This type of agriculture is widely practiced by many tribes of the tropics, especially in Africa, in tropical South and Central America, and in South-East Asia. It is better known as shifting cultivation.


The subsistence agriculture or shifting cultivation is categorized by the following characteristics and features:

(i) Sites for the plantation are usually selected in the fertile area of the forest by the knowledgeable and veteran elders. Hill slopes mostly give preference because of better drainage facility. Many plantations and farms are located in the isolated interiors, far from the densely populated areas.

This is relatively for historical reasons as most shifting cultivators and farmers have been forced into less favorable areas by the extension of the more progressive farmers into the better, lower and plain lands. Their isolation acts as a hindrance in their progress and makes the propagation of new ideas more hard.

(ii) The forests are usually cleared by burning them up with fire and the ashes, so recovered aid to the fertility of the soil. Trees that are not burnt are chopped off by the men or left to decay in natural conditions. Hence, shifting cultivation is also known as ‘slash-and-burn agriculture’.

A type of agriculture, where an area of forest land is cleaned with a mixture of felling and burning and crops are grown is shifting cultivation.

  • After 2-3 years the fertility of the soil begins to weaken, the land is left abandoned and the farmer moves to clear a fresher piece of farm somewhere else in the forest as the procedure continues.
  • While the land is left unplanted the forest regrows in the cleared farm and soil productiveness, and biomass is re-established.
  • After a decade or more, the agriculturists and farmers may return to the first piece of the farm.
  • It is maintainable at lower population densities, but higher population loads require more numerous clearing which prevents soil productiveness from improving, opens up more of the forest canopy, and inspires scrub at the expenditure of large trees, eventually resulting in land erosion and deforestation.
  • Various names in Shifting cultivation:
  1. Dredd in India,
  2. Ladang in Indonesia,
  3. Milpa in Central America and Mexico and
  4. Jhumming in North East India.
  • While this slash and burn technique describes the method for opening new plot, commonly the farmers in question have in existence at the same time smaller fields, sometimes simply gardens, near the homestead 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 of farms nearer the homestead very often receive household garbage, the manure of any household chickens or goats, and compost piles where refuse is thrown initially just to get it out of the way. However, such farmers often recognize the value of such fertilizer and manure to apply it regularly to their smaller plots or fields. They also may irrigate part of such plots and fields if they are near a water resource.

(iii) The cultivated patches of farm are generally very small; about 0.5-1 hectare (1-3 acres) scattered and spread in their spreading and disconnected from one another by bushes or thick dense forests.

(iv) Cultivation is done with very old fashioned tools such as sticks and hoes, without the help of machines or even animals. Much manual and physical labour is needed in clearance of land to produce food for a small number of people.

Thus, despite the fact that little consideration is given to the crops when they are once planted,no other form  of cultivation is as wasteful as Shifting cultivation  as it wastes so much of human effort and energy yet unrewarding.

(v) A small number of crops are raised in the ladings. Starchy foods are the main crops. For example yams, maize or corn, millet, tapioca, upland rice, beans and bananas, cassava or manioc. Crops are sown at pre-decided and calculated breaks, often between the growth periods of other plants, so that the harvest can be stored to provide food all the year round. Mostly, similar kinds of crops are grown in the farms.

(vi) Cultivation where there are comparatively shorter periods of crop occupancy alternate with comparatively longer periods of ploughing and when the produce can no longer support the families and community because of exhaustion of soil or the weeds and shrubs invasion, the fields are left and subsequently fresh areas are cleared, ‘Field rotation’ rather than ‘crop rotation’ is said to be practised.

(vii) A ‘migratory agriculture’ in essence still aids many of the primitive tribes of the tropical forests, even though the efforts made by the local govern­ments to relocate them. The deterioration of nutrients in soil, the depletion of the lightly constructed bamboo houses, and insect-pests attacks, the spread of diseases or wild animal attacks are some of the chief reasons that make migration a compulsion.

‘Sedentary subsistence agriculture’ in tropical lowlands, a comparatively advanced and developed form of Subsistence Agriculture where the ploughed fields are regularly reused and the community stays permanently and lastingly in one place. Crop rotation is also practiced in some places and higher attention is given to the crops sown and the land.

Methods of cultivation are more intensive, though crude hand tools, kits and implements are most often still used and there is a higher employment of physical manpower in the fields. This type of economy has the capability of sustaining a comparatively larger population on a permanent and lasting basis.

The largest number of animals are kept, including swine and horses, buffaloes, and animals are used for deficiency purposes on the farm as well as for continuous supply milk or meat. Cool season is the best time for sowing crops and grown throughout the rainy period to be subsequently picked in the dry season.

Read: Fish Feed Preparation At Home.

2. Intensive Subsistence Agriculture:

A type of agriculture characterized by high output per unit of land and relatively low output per worker is called as ‘intensive subsistence agriculture’. The nature of this agriculture has changed upto a large extent in many areas and it is no longer subsistence form of agriculture.

But in spite of changes the term ‘intensive subsistence’ is still used in the present day to describe those agricultural systems which are clearly more sophisticated and developed than the primitive agriculture. It is also known as a popularly ‘ monsoon type of agriculture’.


This form of agriculture is best established in and practically confined to the monsoon lands of Asia. It is found in Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, the greater part of continental South-East Asia.

Farming in both the terraced uplands and the damp lowlands has to be very intensive to upkeep a thick population. Densities of the population in some agricultural areas in Asia are higher than those of Western industrial areas. Many of the regions of intensive Subsistence Agriculture have a highly settled form of society and government.

The upward growing population, almost unrestricted for years together, imposes an ever greater intensity in the cultivation of the lands.

In the intensive subsistence agriculture,

  • The farmer cultivates a small piece of land using simple impediments, kits and tools and more of physical labour.
  • Coming to climatic conditions: Large number of days with sunshine and rich soils permits growth of more than one crop annually on the same piece of land.
  • Farmers use their small land possessions to produce sufficient for their limited consumption, while the residual produce is used for exchange or barter against other goods.
  • The result of this form of agriculture is that more amount of food is produced per acre in comparison to other patterns of Subsistence Agriculture.
  • When the situation is most intensive, farmers or growers even create terraces along vertical hillsides to cultivate rice paddies.
  • The farmers may also intensify by the use of manure, artificial irrigation and waste of animal as fertilizer.
  • This type of intensive Subsistence Agriculture is mostly prevalent in the densely populated areas of the monsoon regions of east Asia, south and southwest.

Read: Broiler Chicken Farming Project Report.


The main features of the intensive subsistence agriculture are as follows:

(i) Very small properties:

Farms have been segmented through several generations, so they have become tremendously small and often wasteful to run. An average farm in Japan is around 0.6 hectare (about 1.5 acres) but in India and in different places in Asia farms may be even minor.

Individual laborers grow crops, mainly to support the livelihood of their own families, though there is some excess for sale in some areas. However, in China, speedy agricultural changes took place after the agrarian revolution of 1949 when the tiny farms were combined, under communist rule, into large farms.

(ii) Farming is very intensive:

In Monsoon seasons, peasants of Asia are so ‘land hungry’ that every bit of plough able land is used for agriculture. The fields are divided only by narrow, handmade edges and tracks by which the farmers move around their farms. To save space, these are kept very narrow. Availability of additional land is made in abundance for cultivation by draining marshy areas, moisteningdehydrated areas and terracing hill slopes/inclines to produce flat areas that are appropriate for cultivation. Only the sharpest hills and the most barren areas, irrigating dehydrated areas and terracing hill slopes/inclines to produce flat areas that are suitable for paddy cultivation are left uncultivated and unused.

Double or treble- cropping is practiced because the farming is really very intense, that during the course of a year several crops are grown on the same land. Where only one crop of paddy can be raised the fields are normally used in the dry season to raise other food or cash crops such as tobacco or oil-seeds sugar.

(iii) Much hand labour is entailed:

Usually, much hand labour is essential in wet paddy cultivation. Ploughing is done with the help of buffaloes, the fields are cleared up by hand, the paddy is planted thoroughly in specific rows by the women, reaping is done with sickles and separating is done by hand. Farm tools, kits and implements are often still very basic & simple.

The elementary tools are basic ploughs, hoesandthe cangkul, a kind of spade. Nowadays machinery has been developed which is capable of working in the drowned fields and distinct machines can plough, plant and harvest the paddy.

Such machines are not yet broadly used because most farmers cannot meet the expense to buy them, but they are broadly used in more prosperous Japan and are gradually spreading throughout Asia. They may be possessed by firms or co-operatives and hired by individual agriculturalists.

(iv) Use of animal and plant manures:

Farmers make use of every available type of manure, including fish wastes, guano, animal dung (especially those from the pig sties and poultry yards) rotten vegetables, clippings, farm wastes, and human excreta to ensure high yields and continued fertility.

Usually with government advice or assistance, there has been an increase amounts of artificial fertilizers are now being used. Most prevalent in countries like Japan, India and China. Phosphates, nitrates and potash are the basic fertilizer applied includes which help to refillimportant plant nutrients in the soil.

(v) Governance of paddy and other food crops:

Paddy is the most controlling crop produced in intensive subsistence agriculture farming. But due to variations in climate, soil, relief and other geographical factors, it is not feasible to grow paddy in many parts of Asia.

In the Indian Deccan and parts of the Indus basin, the most dominant crop due to the shortage of rain and the inferior and poorer soils is sorghum or millet. In numerous parts of continental South-East Asia such as the Dry Zone of Myanmar, the interior regions of Indo-China and the Korat Plateau of Thailand the yearly precipitation is too less for damp paddy cultivation and the additional crops are groundnuts, millet and maize grown together with oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane.

In the recent past, this type of agriculture has recorded a substantial improvement in the form of modernisation, use of developed seeds and fertilisers and other recent systems of agro-science. Many countries like Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, China, India, etc., have adopted a better system of agriculture.

Nomadic herding

Nomadic farming is a kind of farming where people wander along with their families and animals from one place to another in search of foodstuffs in the form of fodder for their animals. Generally, they rear sheep, goats, camels, cattle, and/or yaks for skin, meat, milk and wool. It is a very common way of life in common in India, east and south-west Africa, northern Eurasiaandparts of central and western Asia.

A brief picture on such nomads is given below:

The Gujjars and Bhotiyaas of Himalayas carry their belongings, such as tents, utensils, etc.., on the backs of horses, camels and donkeys. Yak and Llama are reared in the mountainous regions of the Andes and the Tibet. When, Reindeer are the common livestock in arctic and sub-arctic areas on the other hand, goats, camels and sheep cattle, horses are also vital.

Lessening of Poverty:

It would be no wrong if Subsistence agriculture can be used as a strategy for lessening of poverty or is other words poverty alleviation strategy, specifically as a safety bar for shocks of food price and for food safekeeping & security.

Poor countries are restricted in economical and institutional resources that would allow them to rise in local prices as well as to accomplish social assistance programs, which is often because they use policy tools that are planned and proposed for medium and high income countries.

Low-income countries have a tendency to have populations in which 70%-80% of the poor are in village areas and more than 80%-90% of village families have a right to use the land, yet a majority of these poor villagers do not have sufficient access to food.

Where can the subsistence agriculture be used and for what purpose?

The forms of Subsistence agriculture can be used in countries having low-income as a portion of policy responses to a food difficulties and crisis in the small and medium term, and provide a safety bridge for the poor in these countries.

Read: HF Cow Facts.

Last Updated: December 16, 2018
Author: Jagdish

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