Form of farming in which nearly all the crops or livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and his family, leaving little surplus for sale or trade. Preindustrial agricultural peoples throughout the world practiced subsistence farming. As urban centers grew, agricultural production became more specialized and commercial farming developed, with farmers producing a sizable surplus of certain crops, which they traded for manufactured goods or sold for cash. Subsistence farming persists today in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing areas.
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Subsistence agriculture is self-sufficient farming in which farmers grow only enough food to feed the family and to pay taxes or feudal dues. 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 (2007:2) writes that "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 River 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 Guinea. Subsistence farming continues today in large parts of up-country Africa (Hyden 1981), and other countries of Asia and South 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 (Waters 2007:127-129).
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.
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 China, 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.