Ed­u­ca­tion: sub­sis­tence farm­ing

Peo­ple who grow the fruit and vegeta­bles we buy from the su­per­mar­ket aren’t the only kind of farm­ers

YOU (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Blight and pests such as lo­custs can de­stroy an en­tire crop vir­tu­ally overnight.

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.


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.

A Kenyan farmer uses a sim­ple hoe to till the hard soil. Just one cow can pro­vide enough milk for a sub­sis­tence farmer’s whole fam­ily.

Goats are low main­te­nance and easy to raise so many sub­sis­tence farm­ers keep them as a source of food.

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