Subsistence Agriculture: Characteristics, Types And Examples

The subsistence farming is a form of agriculture in which almost all crops are used to keep the farmer and the farmer’s family, leaving little or no surplus for sale or trade. For the most part, the land on which subsistence farming takes place produces once or twice a year at most.

Historically, pre-industrial farming peoples around the world have practiced subsistence farming. In some cases, these villages moved from one site to another when soil resources were depleted at each location.

However, as urban settlements grew, farmers became more specialized and commercial agriculture developed, generating a production with a considerable surplus of certain crops that they traded for manufactured goods or sold for money.

Today subsistence agriculture is practiced mostly in developing countries and rural areas. Despite being a practice of limited scope, farmers often handle specialized concepts, allowing them to generate the food they need for their subsistence without relying on more elaborate industries or practices.


The definition preferred by many authors of subsistence agriculture is related to the proportion of products traded: the lower this share, the greater the degree of orientation towards subsistence.

Some authors consider that an agriculture is subsistence when most of the production is destined for own consumption and what is destined for sale does not exceed 50% of the crops.

Based on this conception, we can list a series of characteristics typical of this type of agriculture. The main ones are the following:

Crops intended mainly for own consumption

The first and most outstanding characteristic is the high degree of own consumption of the products, mostly more than 50% of the crops.

It is worth noting that the subsistence farms are small, although the smallness does not necessarily imply that the agriculture of the place is subsistence; For example, suburban horticulture farms may be small, but they are fairly market oriented and efficient in this area.

Low capital endowment

Subsistence farming centers often have little financial investment for their practices. This low endowment often contributes to the low competitiveness that these crops tend to present in the market.

Absence of new technologies

In this type of agriculture there are no large-scale machinery and new technologies are not applied. Likewise, the labor it uses is considered by some as low-skilled, because in most cases it is family or friends of the farmer who, together with him, are in charge of cultivating empirically.

However, as mentioned above, in many cases the people who work under this modality have created procedures that work very well in the space they have, thanks to the extensive experience they have developed themselves or that they have inherited from ancestors. who were engaged in the same tasks.


Migratory agriculture

This type of agriculture is practiced on a plot of forest land. This plot is cleared through a combination of slash and burn, and then cultivated.

After 2 or 3 years the fertility of the soil begins to decline, the land is abandoned and the farmer moves to clear a new piece of land elsewhere.

While the land is left fallow, the forest regrows in the cleared area and the fertility and biomass of the soil are restored. After a decade or more, the farmer can 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, preventing soil fertility from regaining and encouraging weeds at the expense of large trees. This results in deforestation and soil erosion.

Primitive agriculture

Although this technique also uses slash and burn, the most outstanding characteristic is that it is generated in marginal spaces.

As a consequence of their location, these types of crops can also be irrigated if they are near a water source.

intensive agriculture

In intensive subsistence agriculture the farmer cultivates a small plot of land using simple tools and more labor. The intention of this type of agriculture is to make the most of the space, usually quite small.

The land located in areas where the climate has a large number of sunny days and with fertile soils, allow more than one crop annually on the same plot.

Farmers use their small holdings to produce enough for local consumption, while the remaining products are used to exchange other goods.

In the most intensive situation, farmers can even create terraces along steep slopes to cultivate, for example, rice paddies.


Jungle areas

After the slash and burn process in the jungle areas, bananas, cassava, potatoes, corn, fruits, squash and other foods are generally grown initially. 

Later, according to the specific dynamics of each product that is planted, it begins to be collected. A plot can undergo this procedure for about 4 years, and then another growing location that serves the same purpose as the first should be used.

Shifting cultivation has several names in different countries: in India it is called dredd , in Indonesia it is called ladang , in Mexico and in Central America it is known as “milpa”, in Venezuela it is called “conuco” and in northeast India it is called jhumming .

Asian towns

Some of the characteristic lands where intensive agriculture is usually practiced are found in densely populated areas of Asia, such as the Philippines. These crops can also be intensified by using manure, artificial irrigation, and animal waste as fertilizer.

Intensive subsistence agriculture is prevalent in the densely populated areas of the monsoon regions of South, Southwest and East Asia, mainly for growing rice.


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  2. Rapsomanikis, S. “The economic lives of smallholder farmers” (2015) in Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO. Retrieved on February 14, 2019 from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
  3. “Subsistence Agriculture: Analytical Problems and Alternative Concepts” (1968) in American Journal of agricultural Economics. Retrieved on February 14, 2019 from Oxford Academic:
  4. “Subsistence Agriculture in Central and Eastern Europe: How to Break the Vicious Circle?” (2003) in Institute of Agricultural Development in Central and Eastern Europe IAMO. Retrieved on February 14, 2019 from AgEcon Search:
  5. “Understanding Subsistence Agriculture” (2011) Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies LUCSUS. Retrieved on February 14, 2019 from Lund University:

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