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Farming systems are the various methods of crop production to obtain human food and animal feed, fibers and other industrial products, or energy crops. Geographical differences are due to historical processes, environmental conditions, and the level of capitalization. Each farming system has specific production objectives, inputs and means of production, and a degree of intensification. Market farming is very input-intensive with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and mechanization, while self-consumption farming ensures food for the household, and is very intensive in labor and land. There is also a broad range of combinations of agriculture with other production systems, such as livestock breeding, aquaculture, or forestry.
The most universal farming system is polyculture, which provides a diversity of food and maximizes labor and land occupation. Crop rotation increases soil productivity and reduces pest pressure. Less than a 25 percent of the product is marketed. The farming practices have a strong cultural component and are adapted to the local environmental conditions, producing heterogeneous landscapes.
Conversely, monoculture systems rely on a very small number of crops and an efficient use of inputs; they are very adaptable to market variations, but are vulnerable to changes in environmental conditions and produce homogeneous landscapes. Monoculture is common in large countries with a market-oriented economy.
Mixed agriculture, which combines polyculture with animal husbandry, is a widespread system because it generates various synergies: animals graze stubble and are employed for cultivating the fields, harvesting crops, transporting farm products, and manure is used as a fertilizer.
Swidden or shifting agriculture-locally known as milpa in Mexico or fang in Asia-is a remnant of very old practices, and its survival is threatened by sedentarization, the expansion of other agricultural systems, and cattle farming and forestry. It is an itinerant form of cultivation that sustains small communities in tropical rainforests in Central America, the Amazon Basin, Africa, southeast Asia and Indonesia. Small forested areas are cleared, vegetation is burned and seeds are scattered over ashes, a practice known as slash and burn. After the first harvest, productivity progressively decays in the following years so that, after four to five years, the community changes to another area to resume cultivation, allowing the forest to regenerate for 10-20 years.
Ley farming is practiced in areas with sufficient soil moisture or where irrigation is accessible. Cereals alternate with fodder or legumes, such as alfalfa, which biologically fixes nitrogen. Dry farming is an adaptation to climates with low precipitation – below 500 millimeters-using no irrigation; however, it entails a high risk of erosion.
Irrigated agriculture has some of the highest levels of productivity per unit area, as in the cases of Asian paddy rice fields and Mediterranean vegetable gardens. It is commonly a form of polyculture or mixed agriculture that combines with various livestock, depending on the geographical area: swine, cattle, fowl, or aquaculture. The areas of cultivation-valleys, flood plains, or slopes where land is scarce-are linked to water availability and elaborate systems of water storage. In monsoon and eastern Asia, small family plots yield two or three rice crops a year after multiple labor-intensive operations, with little mechanization and using organic fertilizer.
Multi-year tree and perennial plant cultivations are found in tropical and subtropical areas. In the Mediterranean, the most common crops are vineyard, dry farming, and irrigated fruit and olive trees. Plantation agriculture coexists with other long-established systems such as slash and burn. This commercially speculative agriculture, largely practiced in developing countries, is oriented to the market in developed countries. The most common crops are coffee, tea, sugarcane, bananas, cocoa, coconut, and tropical fruits; maize and soybeans; or industrial crops such as tobacco, cotton, or jute. Some countries are totally dependent on the products’ income and vulnerable to price fluctuations. Coffee, the second world leading commodity and the livelihood of 25 million families, is a clear example. Episodic crises in prices are common as the result of systemic dysfunctions in supply or demand. It is very dependent on capital and labor, so large companies participate as farm owners, managers, or dealers. With a vertical structure, plantations have evolved to predominantly fragmented properties that sell to dealers, depending on the nature of the crop. The harvest is partially processed in situ before trading, to cut down transportation and labor costs.
Evolution of Farming
Thomas Malthus considered population to expand separately, and typically faster, than agriculture. Ester Boserup’s thesis of agricultural change, conversely, understands technology as endogenous, with population growth actually driving intensification and innovation in cultivation. As population rises, a reduction of the fallow period takes place while labor and technology increase to compensate yield decline. Population growth forces agricultural change in technology, followed by land reclamation and replacement by higher-yield crops. Clifford Geertz identified a process of “agricultural involution” in which poverty sharing may take place in conditions of population stress. Under conditions of demographic pressure, no incentives exist to introduce new technology because labor is abundant. As a result, yield per unit area increases at the same time yield per capita decreases.
Technology has led to innovative industrialized farming systems such as greenhouses, hydroponics, or genetic engineering. After the development in 1961 of a high-yielding, disease-resistant hybrid wheat, its use rapidly extended and made some developing countries self-sufficient and exporters. Recently, however, yield increases have stalled and in some cases, productivity has declined, due to exhaustion of soil and water resources and adaptation of pest species, leading to calls for a more sustainable form of modern agriculture.
- Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (Westview Press, 1995);
- Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population Pressure (Aldine, 1965);
- Francesca Bray, The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies (University of California Press, 1993);
- L. Turner and S. B. Brush, eds., Comparative Farming Systems. (Guilford Press, 1987);
- Michael Collinson, A History of Farming Systems Research (CABI Publishing, 2000);
- John Dixon, Aidan Gulliver, and David Gibbon, Farming Systems and Poverty: Improving Farmers’ Livelihoods in a Changing World (FAO, 2001);
- Clifford Geertz, Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (University of California Press, 1963).