Centuries ago, farmers practice subsistence farming on a regular basis. Subsistence farming is one that provides a self-sufficient lifestyle for the farmers and their families.

The farmers grow and raise crops and livestock to support their family’s needs. While some subsistence farmers sell their surplus as supplemental income, most store and use the following year.


Subsistence farming gave way to commercial farming as urban cities grew and agricultural production changed. Commercial farmers grow specialized crops with sizable surplus. These farmers then trade or sell their surplus for cash or manufactured goods. However, as climate change continues to become more and more of a presence as well as an overt “threat” in people’s minds, there is an increasing demand and a need for both cities (large and small) as well everyday people to change the ways in which factory farming has affected the local environment and how can people take an active role in changing where their food is sourced.


Farming practices that differ from traditional factory methods like urban farming, hydroponics and vertical farming have become viable alternatives to the vast swathes of land that is used by larger conglomerates. Meanwhile. cities themselves have decided to take it upon themselves to become more eco-conscious by implementing green building materials and forming a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystems they inhabit rather than the other way around. Additionally, people themselves have made the switch to grow their own more of their food or become more active in supporting their local food systems by sourcing everyday items from their local farmers and farms.


Primitive and Intensive Subsistence Farming Subsistence farming falls under two categories: primitive and intensive. Let’s take a look at these categories!

Primitive, also called simple, subsistence farming is the oldest form of farming in history. You can find it in some areas of the world today.

Primitive farmers are self-sufficient and grow food for their families. Some of these farmers use their surplus to barter or gain more cash.
Intensive subsistence farming is characterized by farming that generates high output per unit of land. Based on the name intensive farming, you might realize that this type of farming in intensive! There is a lot of labor involved with land to cultivate, even on steep hills. Intensive farming supports a large amount of people in a small piece of land. A prime example is rice growing, commonly found in East, South and Southeast Asia.

Characteristics of Subsistence Farming Subsistence farming has features that set it apart from large-scale, commercial farming. One of these characteristics is that most farmers rely on simple tools. Shovels and wheelbarrows make the list, but you won’t find large machinery on subsistence farms. Simple tools keeps the costs down for the farmer. Subsistence farmers must have a reliable water supply. This feature is crucial for the success of the crops. In ancient times, farmers would have lived near a water source and dug trenches to help water their plants. Nowadays, subsistence farmers just need a municipal water supply and a pump. You won’t find large amounts of livestock on these types of farms. When raising animals, farmers focus on the quality of their farm animals rather than quantity. Farmers also would grow grains and food for these livestock, ensuring they depend on just themselves.

Most farmers don’t rely on fertilizers, nor do they use electricity for their efforts. Also, subsistence farms tend to be small, between one and three acres. Since their primary goal is to provide for their family’s needs, less acreage is less to cultivate and care for during the growing season. Normal Crops for Subsistence Farming Subsistence farmers first and foremost must provide for the needs of their family and their animals. The desire for surpluses for bartering and selling are secondary. So, the crops would be based on the particular region, especially for grains. Fodder is grown for farm animals. Each family would grow what grows in their climate based on their growing season and rainfall. What each farmer grows is individual, but some examples might be:

• Potatoes
• Corn
• Squash
• Carrots
• Beans
• Onions
• Garlic
• Tomatoes
• Yams

Some subsistence farmers like to grow cash crops as a way to supplement their income. Plants such as sugarcane, cotton, jute and oil seeds are considered cash crops. Subsistence Farming in the 21st Century Unfortunately, subsistence farming only accounts for less than 1% of farmers in the United States.

It is more common in other parts of the world, such as India, Africa and Brazil. While the idea behind subsistence farming is fantastic, most farmers find that productivity is less than desirable. As more people turn towards self-sufficient living, we are seeing a reemergence in people and cities seeking to understand how to incorporate these techniques in their small-scale farms and homesteads as well as the urban environment.

Craig Scott

Craig Scott

I love to spend all the time I can outdoors and find every excuse to leave my house. I write about everything from backyard DIY projects to gardening. If you can’t get a hold of me I am probably on a trail or a boat.