Subsistence Farming: What It Is and the Top 11 Steps to Start

The popularity of subsistence farming is increasing gradually in many areas around the world, especially among the health conscious people. Currently, the markets around us are filled with GMO products and all of these products are produced by using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

These types of foods which are produced by using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be very dangerous for our health. And consuming such foods is causing numerous diseases or health problems. That’s why most of the health conscious people who have capabilities are shifting to subsistence farming practice.

Actually subsistence farming is not a new idea, rather it is a traditional agricultural practice and people throughout the world have practiced it during the preindustrial periods. And it was the dominant mode of world’s food production before market-based capitalism became widespread.

Subsistence Farming Definition

Do you know what is subsistence farming or subsistence farming definition? It’s very important to know the definition of subsistence farming, before going deep into this subject.

Subsistence farming (also known as subsistence agriculture) is a type of agricultural practice. And in this practice, individuals or families primarily cultivate different types of crops and raise many livestock to meet their basic food demand and other survival needs.

Producing enough food for sustaining the farmer and his/her family is the primary goal of subsistence farming, rather than for commercial sale purpose or profit making purpose.

Key Characteristics of Subsistence Farming

Subsistence farming is a very important system of food production for millions of people throughout the world, especially in less-developed regions. But the scenario is changing gradually in the modern days. And now health conscious people are trying to shift to this traditional agricultural practice. Here are some key characteristics of subsistence agriculture.

  1. Subsistence farmers are self-sufficient, and they rely on the crops they grow and the animals they raise to provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities for themselves and their families.
  2. Generally most of the subsistence farms are operated small-scale and often involve traditional and labor-intensive farming methods. Most of the farmers use simple tools and techniques to cultivate their land.
  3. Most of the subsistence farmers used to grow a variety of crops. Major crops include staple foods such as grains (rice, wheat, maize), vegetables, and fruits.
  4. Another notable characteristic of subsistence farming is limited production. Most of the subsistence farms generate limited surpluses that can be used for trade, barter, or sale in local markets.
  5. Most of the subsistence farms tend to have low levels of mechanization, as many farmers rely on manual labor and draft animals for plowing and other agricultural tasks. I think this is a very good way for strengthening our bonding with mother earth.
  6. Most of the subsistence farms are associated with rural communities and traditional agricultural practitioners. It is prevalent in many developing countries and regions where availability of modern agricultural technology is limited.
  7. Subsistence farms actually depend on local resources, such as land, water, and climate, and most of them have limited access to external inputs like chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This is the most notable and important characteristic I love about this traditional practice. Uses of natural or organic fertilizers and pesticides will enhance the quality of the products many many times more than using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Essential Steps for Starting & Operating a Successful Subsistence Farm

Starting a subsistence farm is not that difficult. You can easily start this traditional practice if you have resources and the willingness of starting it. You should start it if you are a health conscious person and want to live a quality life which will be very very close to nature.

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We are not going to force or motivate you to start this practice. Here we are going to share the essential steps for starting this agricultural practice.

​Step 1: Make Yourself Ready

The first step for starting a subsistence farming system in modern days, is to prepare yourself for doing this. You have to understand the commitment and challenges involved in this practice.

Most of the people in modern days used to live in cities, and most of them love that lifestyle. If you are also among these people, then living on a subsistence farm can be challenging for you. You have to compromise on many modern facilities which are available in the modern cities.

So, we highly recommend asking yourself whether you will be able to live a simple life on a subsistence farm or not. Although, it will be much easier for you if your subsistence farm is a second option for you and if you have another source of main income.

Step 2: Setup Your Goal and Expectations

It’s also very important to set your goals and expectations. Because, without proper goals or expectations you will not be able to fully utilize your resources. The basic goal of a subsistence farm is to fulfill the basic needs of a family. However, goals and expectations of a subsistence farm are:

  • Producing enough food for the family
  • Reducing dependence on external sources and ensuring self-sufficiency
  • Maintaining sustainability
  • Maintaining diversification to have a diverse but balanced diet and also to reduce the risk of crop failures
  • Reducing expenses is also a goal of a subsistence farm, as you are growing your own food
  • Generating small income from surpluses that can be sold or traded in local markets
  • Producing organic products without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides
  • Preserving the culture where subsistence farming is a cultural and traditional practice

Step 3: Choose the Right Location

Skip this step if you already have land. But if you are new in this practice, then you have to choose the right location for your purpose. Consider some basic factors while choosing the location such as price, soil quality, climate, availability of water, communication facilities, availability of market, distance from nearby town, local community etc.

After selecting the right location for your farm, go for land acquisition and additional preparations. Please note that, it’s very important to ensure that you have a solid budget and sourcing materials for supporting your subsistence farm.

Step 4: Make a Solid Plan for Your Subsistence Farm

After selecting the right location, it’s time to make a solid plan for your subsistence farm. You have to plan for everything that you need in your daily life and go forward according to the plan.

Create a layout for your farm, and try to include everything in the layout. The layout for your farm should include planting areas, animal shelters, crop production area, storage, fodder production areas, and pond.

You can ask for help from an expert if you are new in this practice, or visit as many subsistence farms as possible surrounding your selected area. Doing this will help you to make better plans for your farm.

Step 5: Select the Right Crops for Your  Region and Needs

Selecting the right crops depending upon your region and needs is also very important. Also practice crop rotation and diversification for ensuring a good and balanced diet and also to reduce the risk of pests and diseases. Here we are trying to list some common crops for a subsistence farm:

Staple Grains: Rice, wheat and maize.

Tubers and Root Crops: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava etc.

Legumes: Beans, peas, cowpeas etc.

Leafy Greens and Vegetables: Kale, spinach, Swiss chard, tomatoes, cucumbers, gourd, bell peppers, eggplant, okra, squash, zucchini etc.

Fruit Trees: Depends on your location and climate. Try to prioritize local or native fruits. Some common fruits to consider are mangoes, papayas, bananas, oranges, lemons, limes, avocado etc.

Herbs and Spices: Basil, cilantro, parsley, chili peppers, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric etc.

Oilseed Crops: Mustard, sesame, groundnuts, coconut, sunflower, soybeans etc.

Traditional and Indigenous Crops: Traditional and indigenous crops grow well in some regions that are well-adapted to local conditions are essential for subsistence. For example millet, sorghum, quinoa, and amaranth.

Climate-Adapted Crops: Choosing the crops that are well-suited to the local climate is also very important. Choose some climate-adapted crops whether it’s hot and arid or cool and humid.

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Step 6: Select the Right Livestock

Choosing the right livestock for your subsistence farm depends on numerous factors such as local environment, available resources and specific needs of you and your family. You can choose two, three or a combination of several livestock types to diversify your sources of food and some income. Some best and most common livestock options for subsistence farming are:

Step 7: Invest in Necessary Equipment and Resources

Obtain necessary resources and equipment which are required for your subsistence farm. This includes but not limited to the followings:

  • Purchasing seeds, seedlings, and livestock
  • Purchasing required tools and equipment
  • Constructing storage
  • Building shelter for livestock
  • Pond construction

Step 8: Practice Organic Crop Farming Methods

You should focus on organic crop farming methods. Always try to use organic fertilizers and natural pest control systems, and avoid synthetic products altogether. Prepare soil in traditional methods and try to do continuous soil improvement.

Step 9: Take Good Care of Your Livestock

Taking good care of the livestock is very important to get good production. Ensure providing them with proper nutrition and good living conditions. Perform regular health checkups of your livestock and take necessary steps.

Step 10: Focus on Water Management and Irrigation

This is also a very important part for a successful subsistence farm. Ensuing a good and clean water system for irrigation and other tasks will be very helpful for you.

Step 11: Harvesting

This is the most pleasuring part of subsistence farming. You can’t compare the joy of harvesting your own products with anything else. It’s really very enjoyable. You just have to learn the right time to harvest each product. Don’t worry, you will learn everything gradually.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

There are many questions people often ask which are related to subsistence farming. Here we are trying to list the common questions about subsistence farming. We hope you will find answers to your questions. Don’t hesitate to ask us if you have more questions.

What is subsistence farming?

Subsistence farming is a traditional agricultural system in which nearly all of the crops or livestock raised are used to maintain the farmer and his/her family.

What is the importance of subsistence farming in global agriculture?

Subsistence farming is very important in global agriculture, because it provides food security for many families and communities. It ensures that people have enough food to eat and fulfill their basic needs. It can also help to reduce the risk of hunger, especially in rural and less-developed areas. This practice also preserves traditional knowledge, biodiversity, and local cultures. And all these contribute to the overall diversity and sustainability of our global food system. It serves as a safety net during difficult times (such as COVID 19 pandemic) and plays a crucial role in supporting rural economies.

How to start a subsistence farm?

Starting a subsistence farm is very easy and simple, but it involves several steps. First of all, make yourself ready for new things. Make a goal and set your expectations. Then choose the right location for your farm and acquire land and necessary equipment and resources. Select the right crop and livestock types and take good care of them. Finally, you will be able to harvest pleasurable products from your own farm.

How much land for subsistence farming?

Exact amount of land required for a subsistence farm depends on numerous factors like type of crops grown, farming techniques, family size, land price, and obviously your budget. In proper planning and efficient farming practices, one acre of land will be sufficient for a small family.

What is the difference between subsistence farming and intensive/commercial farming?

The main difference between subsistence farming and intensive farming is in their goals and methods. The aim of subsistence farming is to provide enough food for a family’s basic needs. And it relies on traditional techniques and minimal modern technology. On the other hand, intensive farming focuses on maximizing production and profit. Commercial farming employs advanced technology, large-scale operations, and high inputs of resources to grow crops or raise livestock for sale in commercial markets.

Why did New England farmers practice subsistence farming?

New England farmers practiced subsistence farming mainly because of the region’s challenging agricultural conditions and the need to ensure their familie’s food security. The rocky and hilly terrain of the region made large-scale commercial farming difficult. That’s why local farmers focused on growing a variety of crops and raising livestock to meet their own needs.

How does subsistence farming affect the environment?

Actually, subsistence farming can have both positive and negative effects on the environment. And the effect on the environment varies depending on local practices and sustainability efforts. This practice involves minimal use of synthetic chemicals and modern machinery. And this will help in reducing environmental pollution and resource depletion. But, extensive land clearing and traditional farming practices used in this system can lead to deforestation, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity. Along with this, as subsistence farmers expand their farms to meet growing food needs, it can contribute to habitat destruction and environmental degradation.

What are different types of subsistence farming?

Subsistence farming can be classified into two types. The first one is primitive subsistence farming which refers to a type of farming practice that relies on ancient agricultural methods. Uses of technology, tools and inputs are minimal in this system. On the other hand, intensive subsistence farming practice involves the intensive use of labor and relatively smaller sized plots of land are used to maximize production.

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