Subsistence Farming: Is It Really Self-Sufficient?

Subsistence Farming: Is It Really Self-Sufficient?
External Guest Writer
May 11, 2022

Unlike commercial agriculture, subsistence farming is non-profit, as most subsistence farmers plant crops to grow enough food to be self-sufficient. Subsistence farmers grow food crops to meet their needs, and do not have excess to spare for profitable livelihood. 

This form of agriculture is not often done by choice, but by the need for a food source that is inexpensive, practical, and basic. For small households, subsistence farming provides adequate food resources, and only requires a small patch of land for farming.

What is Subsistence Farming?

Subsistence agriculture is the complete opposite of commercial farming, where crops grown on small land plots are cultivated solely for consumption of the farmer and their family. Subsistence farming is most common in rural areas where food resources are scarce, and subsistence farms do not make profit from their crop production.

Crops produced from this branch of agriculture, called subsistence crops, are only for the benefit of the farmers who grow them. The idea of subsistence agriculture is for rural farmers to grow their own food, enough only for their family's consumption. Excess harvests are then preserved and stored for future consumption. 

How Does It Work?

The closest example to subsistence farming in the developed world is urban gardening, where individuals would grow their own food in small gardens or pots. However, unlike in urban areas,  farmers rely only on subsistence farming for food, and would otherwise starve if not for farming their own crops and rearing livestock. 

A subsistence farmer would plan out their crop production in advance based on how much food their family will need throughout the seasons. Typically, all family members would contribute to the farm, and cultivate only the crops they need that they can grow in the small plot of land.

The outcomes of subsistence farming vary greatly, and factors such as soil erosion, pestilence, and plant diseases can often affect harvest. Any decrease in harvest can make it difficult to continue living off the land, so farmers place all their time and energy in their farms.

The Characteristics of Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming is characterized by two main points: farming necessary crops on a small plot of land, and farmers only grow sufficient food and raise enough livestock to feed their families. None of the harvest goes to profit, as families store surplus fruits and vegetables for future consumption.

Land is a requirement in farming, but in many small communities, the land is shared among the residents. Traditionally, subsistence farming is seen in areas of rural Africa, Asia, and sometimes Latin America, but there are also subsistence farmers in developed countries who practice self-sufficiency by choice.

Labor is done only by members of the family, or the community that benefits from the small farm, as each member does their part in growing their own food for survival. No transportation is needed for the farm-to-table produce, but the outcomes of subsistence farming can mean abundance or starvation for the people relying on the land.

The Benefits and Challenges of Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming continues to dominate agricultural practices in many parts of the world, often in low-income countries that have little to no access to commercial farming methods and food resources.

In developing areas around Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as select communities in Central and Western Asia, the majority of the rural poor depend on this type of farming to survive.

Subsistence farming allows people to produce food at a cost-effective way, and using limited space. Since there are no commercial tools needed, the costs to start subsistence farming are relatively cheap. However, with the low cost of entry comes low returns, and much of the farms do not make a profit off their harvests.

While this type of farming may sound self-sufficient, it may not be sustainable for the long-term. There is uncertainty in starting a subsistence farm, as multiple factors can wipe out the entire season's harvest at a moment's notice. Factors like soil quality, pests, and disease can limit the farm, affecting harvest. 

Climate change has negatively affected harvests in subsistence farms, as the frequent change in weather affects growing conditions, and makes growing fruitful foliage extremely difficult. Natural phenomena, such as locust swarms, have become more frequent due to environmental degradation, which pose challenges for farmers. 

Developments in self-sufficient farming methods are accessible to those in developed nations. For the population who depend on the farms to survive, however, these studies do not reach their ears, as lack of education is another problem that limits how much a subsistence farm can sustain.

Becoming Self-Sufficient

Subsistence farming is a short-term solution as farmers do not have the proper resources and education to understand sustainable farming practices. Over time, soil degradation would create infertile land, which will decrease food production for the people relying on these plots to survive. 

Sustainable farming is a novel alternative to subsistence farming, as the former deals with soil preservation, fertility, and creating a long-term solution to self-sufficiency. There are non-profit organizations that aim to provide agricultural education to rural farmers so they can farm sustainably, while taking in moderate profit from their harvests. 

Tailored training programs help remote farming communities to improve their lifestyles, as they learn trades that decrease their dependency on subsistence farming. While these programs are still under development, subsistence farming continues to be a source for survival for select communities.