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Subsistence agriculture is self-sufficiency farming in which farmers grow only enough food to feed their family. The typical subsistence farm has a range of crops and animals needed by the family to eat during the year. Planting decisions are made with an eye toward what the family will need during the coming year, rather than market prices. Tony Waters writes: "Subsistence peasants are people who grow what they eat, build their own houses, and live without regularly making purchases in the marketplace."

Subsistence grain-growing agriculture (predominantly wheat and barley) first emerged during the Neolithic Revolution when humans began to settle in the Nile, Euphrates, and Indus Rivermarker Valleys. It was the dominant mode of production in the world until recently, when market-based capitalism became widespread. Subsistence horticulture may have developed earlier in South East Asia and Papua New Guineamarker.

Subsistence farming continues today in large parts of up-country Africa, and other countries of Asia and Latin America. Subsistence agriculture had by and large disappeared in Europe by the beginning of World War I, and in North America with the movement of sharecroppers and tenant farmers out of the American South and Midwest during the 1930s and 1940s. In Central and Eastern Europe subsistence and semi-subsistence agriculture reappeared within the transition economy since about 1990.

Effects on the environment

Subsistence farming typically uses few fertilizers and no machines. Instead the farmers may use draft animals which can be fed and raised on the farm. Subsistence farmers often rely on crop rotation, animal manure, and compost to restore the nutrients rather than purchasing expensive synthetic fertilizers. This agriculture can limit the amount of growth in a season.

In areas which are sparsely populated, subsistence agriculture can be sustainable for a long time. In more densely populated areas, subsistence agriculture may deplete the soil of nutrients, and damage the environment. However the traditional agriculture of East Asia, for example the small-holdings of Chinamarker, has been described as sustainable, using extensive methods of cultivation and despite high population pressure.

One form of subsistence agriculture is shifting cultivation, or swidden, a practice common with rain fed agricultural systems. Farmers typically abandon a given plot when soil fertility wanes and move on to more fertile land, often utilizing slash and burn techniques. A considerable fallow period ensues on the abandoned land. It takes up the least amount of land among the four types of cultivation, but it only provides enough food for the local population.

See also


  1. Tony Waters. The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: life beneath the level of the marketplace. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 2007.
  2. Goran Hyden. Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania: Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1980.
  3. 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.
  • Charles Sellers. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press. 1991.
  • Howard, Sir Albert. (1943) An Agricultural Testament. Oxford University Press.

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