Subsistence Farming- Sustainability in Africa, The Middle East, and Even at Home

Not all farms you see are commercial farms. True, most are growing crops such as corn, wheat, tobacco, and many others, to sell to markets or companies. However, there are some farmers who only focus on growing enough food for themselves or their community. This is called subsistence farming. While this may sound like a fine idea, for some reason, it is not working out. In fact, many people think that to raise the living conditions of some of these subsistence farmers, they should be more commercially minded.


Subsistence Farming

The definition of subsistence farming is the same as the definition for subsistence agriculture. Farming or a system of farming that provides all or almost all the goods required by the farm family, usually without any significant surplus for sale. Basically, it is when a farm is used primarily for the family to live off of. All of the crops and/or livestock that they raise and produce, they use to maintain themselves. Traditionally, the practice of subsistence farming was done by pre industrial agricultural people, all over the world. As the soil they would use became unable to grow any more crops, they would move to a new location.


As new cities began to develop, most of the farmers began to specialize their agriculture and sold it commercially to make a living. Farmers would start to produce more and more crops which they would trade for cash or other goods. This farming is still around today, in various parts of the world. Where is subsistence farming practiced today? There is a large population of subsistence farming in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as other areas in Asia and the Middle East.


Types of Subsistence Agriculture

There are a few different types of subsistence farming. Intensive subsistence farming, shifting cultivation and one related type, which is pastoral nomadism. Each of these type of subsistence farming specializes in a certain farming process.


Intensive Subsistence Agriculture

This is the largest type of subsistence farming that people around the world still practice. This form is highly dependent on animal power and if highly labor intensive, as the name implies. Intensive subsistence farming is very common in East, South and Southeast Asia, where the density of the population is very high and there is limited land use. Usually, you will find wet rice fields, but there can also be fields with wheat and barley. In areas with warm climates and long growing seasons, farmers may only be able to get two harvests per year from a single field. This method is called “double cropping.”


Shifting Cultivation

The next type of farming is shifting cultivation. Also called traditional subsistence farming, this form is when farmers will move around to a new location every few years to find new land. It is a very old way of subsistence farming. There are two processes in shifting cultivation. The first is, the farmers must remove and burn the earth by cutting the vegetation away to create space and burning the land which fertilizes the soil. This is called slash-and-burn agriculture. The next process is that farmers can only grow crops on the land they clear for 2-3 years before they deplete the nutrients in the soil. Then, they must move on to a new location and remove a new area of the earth. They can, however, return to the location they grew on before after 5-20 years, once the natural vegetation has regrown.


Commonly, crops such as corn, millet, and sugarcane, are grown using shifting cultivation. An additional trait for shifting cultivation is that the farmers do not own the land they grow on. Rather, the chief of the village or an organized council owns the land and decides what happens.

subsistence farming: deforestation

Slash-and-burn agriculture is actually responsible a lot of the deforestation around the world. However, if we want to solve that issue, we need to get to the root of the issue which is poverty and hunger.


Pastoral Nomadism

While not agriculture exactly, pastoral nomadism has a relation to subsistence farming in the fact that while they do not raise crops, they do raise animals. This practice is most commonly found in arid regions like the Middle East and Northern Africa. This is because the air in those areas does not allow for much growth of crops. The primary use for raising animals is for milk, clothing, and other materials. Interestingly enough, most nomads do not kill their animals for food. Most eat grains by trading the milk and clothing made from the fur of the animals.

subsistence farming: nomads

The type of animal which these nomads choose to raise is greatly dependent on the culture and the resources available. For instance, camels can carry a lot of luggage and cargo, as well as travel great distances. They require very little water, which is a great advantage in arid climates like the Middle East. However, goats, while they require more water, can eat a much wider selection of food.


While the common belief of nomads is that they just wander aimlessly, trying to find water, this is untrue. In fact, they are very aware of their surroundings. Each group of nomads “control” a specific area and other group will respect the territories. Since the geography is fairly large, there tends to be enough water and other materials needed for survival. Some groups actually migrate seasonally with their animals between mountainous regions. This is called transhumance.


Subsistence Farming in Africa

Subsistence farming can be found in use greatly in sub-Saharan Africa. A majority of the rural poor population depend on this agriculture for survival. The reason this is seen in such heavy use in this area is because it allows the farmers to grow food, with very little cost to them, and reduces their need to travel to the city. It also creates an opportunity to continue living in a village, there the housing is much cheaper, as well as allowing the family to be self-sufficient in their food needs.


Why It Isn’t Working

Even though this form of sustainable living is in use by much of the population, many are still in threat of starvation. This is because subsistence farming is very dependent on the weather and climate change. If there is a drought, the crops can not receive the water needed to properly grow. When there is a flood, the crops could be washed away. In both instances, the harvest could be very limited that year. Which means there might not be enough to sustain the family. Subsistence farming only works if everything goes right, which as many know, rarely happens. While there is little need to borrow or buy anything when it comes to the farm, other things for living require money. In subsistence agriculture, the crops to not yield enough to sell and feed the family. This means that there is no income or profit for the family.


A Call For Commercial Farming

For years, economists and researchers, working for organizations like the United Nations, have said that the farmers need to boost production in order to reduce their dependence on food imports. Thus, pulling themselves out of poverty.


The question was brought up during a a panel at the World Economic Forum in May of 2017. How to transform African farming from small to large scale. William Asiko, executive director of Grow Africa, said that local farmers should become “more commercial-minded operations.” Instead of changing them from small to large, change the way they operate.


Asiko said during the panel, “I come from Kenya. Kenya is a story of smallholder commercial farmers- mostly farmers that have less than two hectares. But it is all commercial, it is all horticulture, it is cash crops run on a cooperative system. Kenya’s entire dairy industry is built on smallholders and built by cooperatives.”


Asiko also made the point that there are many places in Africa that support the large scale farming, than there has been for the small scale commercial farms. Asiko presses forward saying “I think enabling policies around supporting smallholder commercial farmers has got much more benefits.” He believes it is all a matter of getting the ball rolling. Once smaller farmers start being more focused on commercial selling of their crops, there will be a natural transition to large scale farms.


“It is about making sure the cooperative system is working well so that farmers can aggregate their produce, get a better price at the market, and then working with processors and making sure that the policies are in place for them to invest with these farmers.”

Subsistence farming: africa

Africa Development Promise

One cooperative that is helping to get these rural subsistence farmers into the commercial mind set is the Africa Development Promise. They are working with rural farmers because they believe that they have a solid foundation from which to start. These farmers know the ins and outs of farming and could prove to be very lucrative for themselves and their community. The cooperative also gives the farmers piece of mind when it comes to their livelihood. They provide protection for the farmers in the case that something happens to their crops during the production. ADP increases the amount that can be farmed and shares the profits. This way, if one farm suffers from a natural disaster, such as a flood or drought, they can still make a profit.


Subsistence Farming in Your Backyard

Modern subsistence farming has taken a new face. Many people, to save money, grow their own vegetables in their backyard. People who live in rural areas who have a decent amount of land, often start a garden as a hobby. They then either keep what they harvest or they can sell it in local markets or food stands.


Urban Farming

Urban farming may sound kind of hipster. But it’s a pretty great idea for anyone who really enjoys gardening, or those who want to save or even make some money. Urban farming has in it, three different categories. Subsistence, recreational, and entrepreneurial. Subsistence farming in urban farming is the same as regular subsistence farming, growing for survival.


Recreational farming is when someone grows out of an interest for farming or gardening. They could be farming to save money on produce or to sell in local markets. Community gardens and French kitchen gardens (potagers) can fall into this category.


The last category is entrepreneurial farming. This is when the farmer is growing to make a profit. They will most likely grow high value, perishable items that will sell fast in the markets. These farmers could be looked at as semi commercial farming because while they are not importing or making enough to sustain a whole town, they are growing to sell.


How to Grow a Subsistence Garden

For those of you who want to try out subsistence farming on your own, maybe to save some money or because you are interested, there are some crops that are better than others.

subsistence farming: urban farming

First off, you have to choose a location. Depending on where you are living, the growing conditions vary greatly. If you are in the city, you can try a rooftop garden, so crops get enough food. (Please ask your landlord first.) If you do not live in a place that gets a lot of rain or at least rain a few times a month, you will need to find a reliable source of irrigation water.


What Can You Grow

Depending on where your garden is, you can grow a lot of different foods. If you are using a rooftop garden, you will want to stick to the smaller vegetables, and ones that do not grow underground as they will not have enough space. For rooftop gardens, go with tomatoes, chilies, peas, beans, (maybe onions), spinach, cilantro, even herbs like mint, sage and rosemary.


For gardens in more open areas with plenty of room, you can grow anything from potatoes and pumpkins, to corn and squash. Just be sure, if you are living in the suburbs, there are not any pipes or electric lines running under your lawn. That would pose a problem.


Urban farming is a great way to save a little cash and live on your own, to an extent. It can also introduce you to what is going on in the world around you.



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Patrick Sands

Hey, I'm Pat. I am a Millersville grad with a Bachelors of Arts in English. I love to write, play video games, watch movies and TV, basically be a total nerd whenever I can. Green and Growing is important to me because it allows me to help others be as green and eco-friendly as possible. With Climate Change being what it is, it is even more important for people to get educated about their environment. This website allows me to do my part in that. Also, I'm a huge goof who tries to add some humor into anything I write. Stay Excellent out there!

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