Subsistence farming, or subsistence agriculture, is when a farmer grows food for themselves and their family on a small plot of land. Unlike other types of farming, subsistence farming is focused more on survival. There is very little or no emphasis on trading and selling goods or operating as a business.
A simple example of subsistence farming is a family growing grain and using that grain to make enough bread for themselves, but not to sell.
For many people living in wealthy countries, this is a romantic idea – having land and using it to sustain you and your family. It calls back to what people might assume was a simpler time. As charming as the idea is in developed countries, the reality is that at this point in time, industrial farming is necessary to feed our expanding human population. As you might have guessed, the methods used for subsistence farming and industrial farming vary greatly. So how is subsistence farming different from the industrial practices?
The methods of subsistence farming are an integral part of the development of human society. Stretching back up to 12,000 years ago, it is a primary aspect of most cultures’ earliest means of survival. Following the ice age, as Homo sapiens began to domesticate plants, they began to settle in one place instead of only hunting and gathering.
Because of this change, groups of people then began to develop complex civilizations – all because of what we now call “subsistence farming.” Anthropologists refer to this transition as the “neolithic revolution.” In the Americas, subsistence farmers were prolific – domesticating a vast array of delicious foods that we consume enthusiastically today, including corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, and potatoes. Pretty cool, eh?
Farmers, from thousands of years ago and all the way up to today, use natural techniques when farming. Industrial farms today use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Subsistence farmers often use manure and compost, products of their own land and animals. Whatever food or crops are not consumed circle back into the process to feed livestock. This creates an efficient system, a closed circuit where little to nothing goes to waste.
If you’ve taken a road trip across North America recently, you’ve seen the rolling hills of corn and soy stretching out for miles in every direction. There are endless neat rows and identical plants. These monocultures are driven by a removed society of endless consumption and insatiable demand. However, if you have a small plot of land to support you and your family through the seasons, diversity of crops and livestock is absolutely essential. You won’t last long on corn and soy alone. This type of diversified technique is called polyculture and subsistence farmers rely on it.
To start with, polycultures are a more environmentally-friendly approach. Certain plants add nutrients to the soil, while others use it up. “Companion planting” techniques benefit the whole farm. Using a variety of plants can ensure that the soil stays rich and healthy throughout the years. Often, when using polyculture techniques, crop yields increase too.
Subsistence farming is the most widely used agricultural method in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of the rural poor depend on their land for survival. With the land as their livelihood, people are able to fray the costs of transportation, rent, and food, as well as the cost of urban living. In Tanzania, for example, agriculture cumulates to 28% of the country’s GDP. 73% of the population lives in rural areas – 19 million people live on small land holdings and practice subsistence farming.
Subsistence farming can look as diverse as the planet we live on though, since it happens almost everywhere. Central and Western Asia, India, South-west Africa, Eurasia, the Philippines, Latin America – the list goes on and on. The techniques are as variable and fluid as the environments where people call home. A study from 2015 found that 25% of the world’s population survive on these techniques.
Living conditions can vary greatly too. People may or may not have access to clean water, electricity, and adequate health care. Sanitary conditions are often a huge factor and this leads to one of the leading causes of death for children in low-income countries.
Subsistence farming is an earth-friendly, ancient approach to feeding a family out of choice and/or necessity. Here’s the catch: subsistence farming is extremely susceptible to climate change. As temperatures warm, droughts increase, and floods occur with more regularity. A farm can lose an entire season’s crop and leave a family in dire straits.
Subsistence farming means families have very little, if any, room for failure. On a planet that is warming at alarming rates, subsistence farms are precarious.