Education: subsistence farming
People who grow the fruit and vegetables we buy from the supermarket aren’t the only kind of farmers
MANY people aren’t aware of how important farms are to our daily existence, but the fact is that without people working the land to produce food we’d all starve. There are two kinds of farmers: commercial farmers who make a profit by cultivating huge tracts of land; and subsistence farmers who live and farm on small plots of land where they produce food for themselves and their families rather than to sell. This week we look at subsistence farming.
Someone who works the soil and keeps animals purely for the purpose of providing food for themselves and their family is called a subsistence farmer. Unlike commercial farmers, who farm on a large scale and usually produce only one or two types of produce, subsistence farmers don’t farm for profit.
They usually produce small quantities of various types of produce, such as mealies, beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, spinach and marog (African wild spinach). They usually also keep a few animals, such as chickens, goats, pigs or cows, on their small plots.
This way the subsistence farmer’s family get eggs, milk and meat to supplement their diet while the little surplus they produce can be traded or sold for cash to fulfil other needs.
Subsistence farmers and their families usually do all the work themselves because there’s not enough profit to pay workers’ wages.
Subsistence farming has advantages for both farmers and the environment.
S Subsistence farmers’ families don’t have to spend much money on food as they produce it themselves. S It’s not necessary to package the produce or transport it over long distances. S It’s an eco-friendly way of farming as subsistence farmers usually don’t use artificial pesticides or weed-killers and rarely use chemical fertilisers. S Because these farmers don’t practise monoculture (large-scale cultivation of one type of crop) and therefore don’t view indigenous plants and wildlife as threats, their farming has less impact on biodiversity (variety in nature). S Their excess produce can be sold for a small income.
Many people dream of getting “off the grid” and living off the land in harmony with nature. Unfortunately this type of lifestyle also has its disadvantages, as subsistence farmers are at the mercy of many uncertainties. S Because subsistence farmers produce a fairly small amount of food, their families sometimes might not have enough to eat. S These farmers are also entirely subject to the elements. Severe storms, hail, drought and other adverse conditions could lead to failed crops and starvation. S Pests such as locusts and blight, which cause plants to dry up and die, can destroy crops virtually overnight, leaving subsistence farmers with nothing. S This food insecurity can be a big worry, weighing heavily on farmers and their families.
FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
Subsistence farming is practised in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. These farmers use simple methods and tools and therefore produce fairly small harvests. The word “subsistence” in fact indicates a struggle to survive because these farmers generally aren’t hugely successful on their small plots of land.
In Africa most subsistence farmers are mothers or grandmothers who raise kids and till the land while the breadwinners in their families work in cities. Their farming isn’t central to their survival as most of them rely on the breadwinners to send home money, or support from the government such as a state pension or child grant.
The children of subsistence farmers often don’t choose the same life for themselves. Many of them view subsistence farming as a sign of poverty and hope to rather make a living in a city.
In poor households in Africa’s rural areas a family could spend 60-80% of their income on food. Food prices are always increasing because of inflation. Subsistence farming can significantly decrease a family’s food expenses, leaving more cash available for school fees and healthcare needs.
This is why it’s important for subsistence farmers to learn sustainable farming practices and how to achieve bigger harvests. More effective methods such as using fertiliser can help to achieve this. In a dry country such as SA a simple irrigation system such as pipes with small holes that ensure water is delivered near the crops’ roots can also help ensure better harvests.
The governments can also do its part by providing and upgrading infrastructure (markets, roads and transport) as well as supplying equipment so subsistence farmers can farm more effectively and sell their surplus produce more easily. In fact, this is the job of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries – to improve the lives of rural people and to help ensure food security.
In many parts of the world oxen are still used for ploughing. South Africa is a water-scarce country, which means subsistence farmers often struggle to irrigate their crops during droughts.
Goats are low maintenance and easy to raise so many subsistence farmers keep them as a source of food.