6: Agriculture

As we have learned in some previous chapters, geographers are interested in how humans use and change Earth's systems. A major and increasing force of change for the last 10,000 years has been the human use of Earth for agricultural production. Agriculture is the practice of growing plants and raising animals for food and some other uses. "Other uses" is generally restricted to plant or animal products harvested annually for direct personal use. For example, growing trees for building materials is generally not considered agriculture but raising sheep for wool clothing is.

Geographer Derwent Whittlesey created a system for classifying agriculture into different types in 1936. To draw a world map of different agricultural regions, he considered whether crops, livestock, or both were raised; the intensity of labor or machinery used; whether crops and animals were raised for consumption on the farm or for sale; and the association of farm buildings and structures with the agricultural land (in other words, the cultural landscape). We'll discuss these major features briefly here, focusing on the distinction between farming to feed one's self and farming to sell for money to buy other goods.

One characteristic for differentiating agricultural regions by type is whether crops are grown (cropland, top) or animals are raised (pasture, bottom). While there is some overlap, some areas of the world are more exclusively pasture and others are more exclusively cropland. Figure from Ramankutty, N., Evan, A.T., Monfreda, C., & Foley, J.A., 2008. Farming the Planet: 1. Geographic distribution of global agricultural lands in the year 2000. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 22(1).  DOI: 10.1029/2007GB002947, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1029/2007GB002952/

1. Subsistence and Commercial Agriculture

In the economically developed world, people often assume that farmers everywhere grow crops or raise animals to earn money. That's the norm in rich countries, called commercial agriculture. But in the economically developing world (the poorer countries of the world), most of the population engages in agriculture to feed themselves. When a farmer raises animals and grows crops principally for consumption on the farm instead of for sale, it is called subsistence agriculture.  The root term, subsist, means "to survive".  The table below compares subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture:

Subsistence Agriculture
Commercial Agriculture
Growing food products to eat
Growing products to sell
Size of farm
Generally small
Use of machinery and technology
Little or none (human and animal power)
Lots (tractors, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, genetically modified and hybrid seeds, antibiotics)
Ties to other parts of the economy
Many: “Agribusiness” (suppliers, processors, storage, shipping, packaging)

There are many important differences between subsistence and commercial agriculture. Fundamentally, though, the role of money should be clear in each difference. Since commercial agriculture occurs at a scale where the farmer can produce enough goods to create an income, not just feed the farm family, the farm is larger in size and uses more machinery and technology to generate that surplus. The production and sale of agricultural products in commercial agriculture results in many ties to other businesses, from the manufacturers of tractors to petrochemical companies producing diesel and pesticides. In contrast, subsistence farmers have smaller farms that they farm mostly by hand, or care for only as many animals as they can easily supervise. Subsistence farmers may produce a surplus that they can sell or use in trade, but only on productive years: they may also have a difficult time feeding everyone who relies on the farm for food. 

Because subsistence agriculture relies mostly on human power to produce food for sustenance, and it sustains only the people involved in agriculture, subsistence agriculture is a major characteristic of the world's poorest countries, the developing world. If a large majority of a country's population is employed farming to feed itself, there is not much economic surplus in that country. A key measure of a country's economic development is the percentage of the population employed in agriculture. In Earth's poorest countries, 80 percent or more of the population works in agriculture, primarily subsistence. In contrast, in the richest countries 5 percent or less of the population works in agriculture.

Of course, many subsistence farmers produce extra crops and engage in trade with that surplus. That means many places with subsistence farming are transitioning to commercial agriculture as farmers start to produce and sell surplus, are more integrated into markets, invest in their farms, and continue to increase production. Here is an example from a village in rural Tanzania where subsistence agriculture is becoming more commercial (note that I'm pretty awkward in the video as there were about a dozen chicks all around my feet and I was trying not to step on them or anything else while walking around this farm!!):

Nearly all agriculture in the world was subsistence until the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its advances in science and technology. Farming in the developed world has become increasingly commercial by farm mechanization, the use of machines to replace human or animal power. Other advances of science, such as an understanding of Mendelian genetics, allowed scientists and farmers to selectively breed plants and animals for their most desired traits, increasing food production per unit of land or per animal.

2. Types of Subsistence Agriculture

Whittlesey identified six types of subsistence agriculture. This section briefly considers the four most well-defined types.

Shifting Cultivation, also known as "slash and burn" agriculture, is practiced in areas with high rainfall and poor soils near the tropics. In these areas, like the Amazon River Basin, most available nutrients useful to grow crops are in the rainforest plants and trees. Farmers move into a forest area, cut down the trees and burn them to clear the land and release nutrients to the soil. The soil is fertile for a few years to produce crops, after which the farmers move on to clear and burn a new section of land. Shifting cultivation is often blamed for the destruction of rainforest resources, but perhaps inappropriately so. With a stable population, shifting cultivation could be practiced in rotation, where the farmer returns to a patch of land that was cleared two or three decades earlier and begin a cycle again.

A patch of forest has been cleared and burned to prepare for planting in northeastern India. 2006 photo by Wikipedia user Prashanthns, used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jhum.jpg?uselang=en

Nomadic Herding, also known as nomadic pastoralism, is the raising of animals in areas that are generally not suitable for the cultivation of crops. Animals are used for meat, milk, or other products and the caretakers follow or guide their animals to areas with the best pasture, often following seasonal rains. Nomadic herding is becoming quite rare today on Earth as populations expand and become more urban, but it is still practiced in some of Earth's great grasslands, like northern Africa and central Asia including Mongolia. A particular subset of pastoral nomadism is transhumance, the seasonal movement from a winter home to summer pastures. Transhumance is frequently practiced in mountain environments like the Alps of Europe or the mountains of New Zealand, as sheep or goats are taken to alpine pastures for the summer but returned to the valleys for winter.

Pastoral people move with their animals to find suitable plants for them to forage. In this photo a member of a Berber group herds goats in the Libyan desert. 2005 photo by Flickr user Roberto D'Angelo, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Source:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/roberdan/82967771/

Intensive Subsistence with Rice Dominant is the growing of rice in rice paddies. This agricultural practice is common in lowland Asia from India to southern China where the climate is warm and rainfall plentiful for much of the year. Wet rice requires flooded fields to start its growth, and farmers work the land very intensively to create and flood flat rice paddies, sometimes even on steep hillsides. Planting and harvesting is also done by hand, an extremely labor-intensive practice that gives this agricultural type its name.

Rice grows in flooded fields in Longsheng, southern China. Rice cultivation results in distinctive cultural landscapes since the fields require periodic flooding. This landscape is especially distinctive when the rice fields are set on steep hillsides as pictured here.  Photo by Wikipedia user severin.stalder. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LongshengRiceTerrace.jpg

In areas where rice cannot be grown or is not the crop of choice, farmers practice Intensive Subsistence without Rice. In these regions another crop is grown with a similar concentration of labor on a small area of land. Crops include grains such as barley and wheat. Higher areas and areas at more northerly or southerly latitudes, like northern China, feature this agricultural type.

Farmers grow barley in this example of intensive subsistence without rice agriculture in the Indian Himalaya. These photos are at the town of Digar, Ladakh, India. The main photo demonstrates the productivity of the fields while the inset photo displays the inhospitable environment from which the fields are intensively leveled and tilled. Note that the residents of Digar also practice transhumance, taking yaks and goats into alpine meadows in summer and returning to the village in winter. Both photos 2007 by Tim Scharks.

3. Types of Commercial Agriculture

Whittlesey identified 6 types of commercial agriculture, each discussed briefly in turn here:

Livestock Ranching is the commercial counterpart to nomadic herding. Land that can support grass but not commercial grains is used as rangeland for animals like sheep or cattle, but the farmer lives in one place and travels by car or truck to the rangelands. Many areas in the American west are used in this manner, but Americans' apparently insatiable demand for cheap meat has led to a change in this traditional practice. Today, most beef cattle spend very little time on open rangelands. Instead, they are concentrated into "feedlots" where grains and grasses grown and harvested elsewhere are trucked in and fed to them. Because the cattle have little to do besides eat, they grow rapidly. Critics of feedlots argue that the animals are kept in inhumane conditions, fed dangerous levels of antibiotics, and contribute to environmental pollution. Because the process of raising meat has become so mechanized and distant from the land, critics have used the terms "factory farming" or "industrial agriculture" to describe this process.

A feedlot in eastern Colorado. 2014 photo by Flickr user Kent Kanouse. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 license. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kkanouse/14090845852

Mediterranean Agriculture is an agricultural type closely associated with the Mediterranean climate region. Since rain falls in winter and summer features a drought, some crops are planted and raised in winter. Other crops are planned to mature during the dry season, and animals such as sheep and goats that can tolerate the dry season are preferred. Some characteristic crops include grains, especially wheat, olives, and grapes.
Fields near Cella Monte, Italy, display a classic Mediterranean agricultural cultural landscape, with some land devoted to food crops and other areas used as vineyards. Photo by Flickr user David Jones. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgjones/7833942494/in/photostream/

Commercial Grain Farming is the use of land for a single grain. Common grain crops include corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, and rice. Grain crops may be irrigated if water is cheap and plentiful enough to justify its use, but many cereal grains such as wheat are planted in semiarid regions where just enough water to support grasses is available but other crops cannot be grown. Commercial grain farms achieve profitability through economies of scale, planting huge tracts of land (hundreds to thousands of acres) with a single crop and relying on extensive use of machinery to plow, plant, fertilize, and harvest.

Wheat is harvested in central Montana by combine harvester, a large specialized tractor that reaps, threshes, and winnows the grain. When the combine is full, the pipe off the back is used to unload the grain into a truck or trailer. The combine harvester is emblematic of the difference in labor intensity between subsistence and commercial agriculture: A single operator running a combine worth several hundred thousand dollars can harvest 100 acres or more in one day. In contrast, a worker reaping by hand could cut about 1/4 to 1/3 acre per day, still requiring threshing and winnowing (loosening and separation of the grain from the inedible stalk and seed casing, called chaff). 2004 photo by Tim Scharks.

Mixed Livestock and Crop Farming is somewhat like a combination of ranching with commercial grain farming. In this type of agriculture, farmers use much of their land to grow crops not for human consumption but as animal feed, or fodder. They feed their crops to animals which are raised for commercial sale. Examples include traditional pig farms in the American midwest, though operations are increasingly specialized to either grow animal feed or raise animals in concentrated animal feeding operations. For example, about 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States is fed to animals.

In Dairy Farming cows are kept with the principal goal of selling their milk. Dairy farming can be considered a variation on mixed livestock and crop farming, since the cows are kept on a relatively small area of the farm and other areas of the farm are often used to grow fodder. Since milk is perishable and expensive to transport, dairy farms are located within a few hours transport time of major population centers. In areas where the climate is good for dairy farming but there is not a high demand for fresh milk because of smaller populations, such as Wisconsin, dairy farms produces higher value-per-weight products like cheese and butter that are also less perishable than milk.
A dairy farm near Campville, New York. The tall structures store silage, animal feed used to feed the dairy cows the rich diet required to produce quality milk. Photo by Flickr user Chris Waits. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 license.  Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chriswaits/6664597939

In the specialized type of Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, growers concentrate on fruits or vegetables that have relatively high value. In cooler climates growers may rely on greenhouses to grow crops from warmer climates or to extend the growing season.

Workers pick strawberries in a commercial gardening operation near Oxnard, California. Commercial gardens often require more intensive labor than other forms of commercial agriculture, which have become highly mechanized. Photo by Flickr user Alex Proimos. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/7618167914

4. Plantation Agriculture: A Special Case

So far we've examined subsistence agricultural types that form regions in the developing world, and commercial agriculture from the developed world. A final agricultural type, Plantation Agriculture, does not conform to that pattern. Plantation agriculture is found mostly in the developing world but it is a form of commercial agriculture, as crops are grown in favorable conditions (usually tropical or subtropical climates) for export to rich countries.

In one form of plantation agriculture, bananas are grown year-round in tropical climates and shipped to developed countries for consumption. Photo by Flickr user OhDuranDuran, used under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 license. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kmdphotos/2609393056/

5. Commercial Farming as part of an Agribusiness System

Thus far this chapter hasn't looked at the cultural systems surrounding agriculture. But as introduced in the table in Section 1, commercial agriculture is tightly enmeshed with other business interests, from companies producing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to companies delivering food to markets. Since there is money to be made in commercial agriculture, corporate interests become active in the political system. Corporations are interested in maximizing profit and will do many things to make more money.

One of the consequences of the continued mechanization of agriculture has been a decreased reliance on labor and an increased reliance on capital in commercial agriculture. Capital refers to investments of money or assets, in this case the wealth represented by owning a very large farm, an expensive tractor, or other equipment that increases production while decreasing the need for labor. As a consequence, there are fewer and fewer people employed directly on the farm while farms continue to produce more and more. One of the ways the decline in farm employment and the increasing size of farms is expressed is that small, family-owned farms are becoming more rare. But in the United States many Americans hold a strong cultural identity that the country is a country of farmers, despite the fact that over 80% of the population lives in urban areas (cities) and less than 5% of the workforce is employed in agriculture.

Powerful agribusiness interests harness Americans' concern for the "American family farmer" to promote government subsidies for agriculture. A subsidy is a payment from the government to support something that is seen as socially desirable and undersupplied. Subsidies can take the form of direct payments or tax breaks (the difference is immaterial to the balance sheet) but are usually meant to increase the supply of whatever is considered good.

Subsidies can sometimes work, but they are also famous for distorting markets. Without going into a lesson on microeconomics, let's talk about the way prices usually send a signal to producers:

You may want to review the discussion of systems theory from Chapter 1. The diagram above shows that the higher the price of a product, the more production increases (in economics terms, an increase in price increases supply). But on the return arrow, an increase in production (surplus) results in a lower price. The system tends to maintain an equilibrium where the price sends a signal keeping demand and supply matched.

In the case of farm subsidies, clever lobbyists have framed the issue of struggling family farmers as a problem of prices being too low. From the perspective of a small family farmer, they are too low to be competitive, because larger farms produce agricultural products more efficiently, but as we'll see the root of the problem is in the large farms, not the price. To address this perceived problem, many farm subsidies target prices by guaranteeing a minimum price on an agricultural product. If the price is too low, the government will pay the difference between the market price and the minimum price. This is called a price support.

That all sounds good in principle. But in real life, supply responds to incentives placed in the market. Here's what an agro-economic system looks like when the government guarantees to pay for every unit produced, no matter how low the price drops:

Everything seems normal at first. Higher market prices lead to lower subsidies, lower subsidies should lead to lower total production. But what happens when the price for a crop is low? Subsidies are high, and total production increases. The resulting surplus pushes prices lower.

Large agricultural operations are in favor of this type of operation because with mass production, efficiencies of scale, and a guaranteed price, they are guaranteed a healthy profit no matter the actual level of demand. Smaller farms may make enough to scrape by, but the real winners in a pay-per-unit-of-production subsidy are the biggest, most efficient farms, which are rarely small family-run farms.

Some direct payments are becoming less common, but subsidies remain for many popular commodities in the form of "price loss coverage" and "agricultural risk coverage," both federal government programs that pays farmers when the market price of the product is too low to be profitable.

Not all subsidies distort markets in the same way, or have the same unintended consequences. But it's easy to see why subsidies that disproportionately benefit the biggest producers persist: by one estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics using federal campaign contribution records, agribusiness lobbyists spent over $100 million in Federal lobbying in 2019. In 2018 alone the average US Senator received over $90,000 in campaign contributions from agribusiness interests.

Links to ERS on rural poverty and demography

Last updated June 19, 2020