Today, there are two divisions of agriculture, subsistence and commercial, which roughly correspond to the less developed and more developed regions. One of the most significant divisions between more and less developed regions is the way people obtain the food they need to survive. Most people in less developed countries are farmers, producing the food they and their families need to survive. In contrast, fewer than 5 percent of the people in North America are farmers. These farmers can produce enough to feed the remaining inhabitants of North America and to produce a substantial surplus.

Subsistence agriculture is the production of food primarily for consumption by the farmer and mostly found in less developed countries. In subsistence agriculture, small-scale farming is primarily grown for consumption by the farmer and their family. Sometimes if there is a surplus of food, it might be sold, but that is not common. In commercial agriculture, the primary objective is to make a profit.

The most abundant type of agriculture practiced around the world is intensive subsistence agriculture, which is highly dependent on animal power, and is commonly practiced in the humid, tropical regions of the world. This type of farming is evidenced by significant efforts to adapt the landscape to increase food production. As the word implies, this form of subsistence agriculture is highly labor-intensive on the farmer using limited space and limited waste. This is a widespread practice in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia where population densities are high, and land use is limited. The most common form is wet rice fields, but could also include non-wet rice fields like wheat and barley. In sunny locations and long growing seasons, farmers may be able to efficiently get two harvests per year from a single field, a method called double cropping.

Another form of subsistence agriculture is called shifting cultivation because the farmers shift around to new locations every few years to farm new land. Farming a patch of land tends to deplete its fertility and land that is highly productive after it is first cleared, loses its productivity throughout several harvests. In the first agricultural revolution, shifting cultivation was a common method of farming.

There are two processes in shifting cultivation: 1) farmers must remove and burn the earth in a manner called slash-and-burn agriculture where slashing the land clears space, while burning the natural vegetation fertilizes the soil, and 2) farmers can only grow their crops on the cleared land for 2-3 years until the soil is depleted of its nutrients then they must move on and remove a new area of the earth; they may return to the previous location after 5-20 years after the natural vegetation has regrown. The most common crops grown in shifting cultivation are corn, millet, and sugarcane. Another cultural trait of LDCs is that subsistence farmers do not own the land; instead, the village chief or council controls the earth. Slash-and-burn agriculture has been a significant contributor to deforestation around the world. To address deforestation and the protection of species, humans need to address root issues such as poverty and hunger.

Pastoral nomadism is similar to subsistence agriculture except that the focus is on domesticated animals rather than crops. Most pastoral nomads exist in arid regions such as the Middle East and Northern Africa because the climate is too dry for subsistence agriculture. The primary purpose of raising animals is to provide milk, clothing, and tents. What is interesting with pastoral nomads is that most do not slaughter their herds for meat; most eat grains by trading milk and clothing for grain with local farmers.

The type of animals chosen by nomads is highly dependent on the culture of the region, the prestige of animals, and the climate. Camels can carry heavy cargo and travel great distances with very little water; a significant benefit in arid regions. Goats require more water, but can eat a wider variety of food than the camel.

Most probably believe that nomads wander randomly throughout the area in search of water, but this is far from the truth. Instead, pastoral nomads are very aware of their territory. Each group controls a specific area and will rarely invade another area. Each area tends to be large enough to contain enough water and foliage for survival. Some nomad groups migrate seasonally between mountainous and low-lying regions; a process called transhumance.

The second agricultural revolution coincided with the Industrial Revolution; it was a revolution that would move agriculture beyond subsistence to generate the kinds of surpluses needed to feed thousands of people working in factories instead of in agricultural fields. Innovations in farming techniques and machinery that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to better diets, longer life expectancy, and helped sustain the second agricultural revolution. The railroad helped move agriculture into new regions, such as the United States Great Plains. Geographer John Hudson traced the major role railroads, and agriculture played in changing the landscape of that region from open prairie to individual farmsteads. Later, the internal combustible engine made possible the mechanization of machinery and the invention of tractors, combines, and a multitude of large farm equipment. New banking and lending practices helped farmers afford new equipment. In the 1800s, Johann Heinrich von Th√ľnen (1983-1850) experienced the second agricultural revolution firsthand‚ÄĒ because of which he developed his model (the Von Th√ľnen Model), which is often described as the first effort to analyze the spatial character of economic activity. This was the birth of commercial agriculture.

More developed nations tend to have commercial agriculture with a goal to produce food for sale in the global marketplace called agribusiness. The food in commercial agriculture is also rarely sold directly to the consumer; rather, it is sold to a food-processing company where it is processed into a product. This includes produce and food products.

An interesting difference between emerging countries and most developed countries (MDC) regarding agriculture is the percent of the workforce that farm. In emerging countries, it is not uncommon that over half of the workforce are subsistence farmers. In MDCs like the United States, the workforce that is farmers are far fewer than half. In the United States alone, less than 2 percent of the workforce are farmers, yet have the knowledge, skills, and technology to feed the entire nation.

One of the reasons why only 2 percent of the United States workforce can feed the entire nation has to do with machinery, which can harvest crops at a large scale and very quickly. MDCs also have access to transportation networks to provide perishable foods like dairy long distances in a short amount of time. Commercial farmers rely on the latest scientific improvements to generate higher yields, including crop rotation, herbicides and fertilizers, and hybrid plants and animal breeds.

Another form of commercial agriculture found in warm, tropical climates, are plantations. A plantation is a large-scale farm that usually focuses on the production of a single crop such as tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar cane, rubber, and cotton, to name a few. These forms of farming are commonly found in LDCs but often owned by corporations in MDCs. Plantations also tend to import workers and provide food, water, and shelter necessities for workers to live there year-round.

Making Sense of Land Use

Geographers are concerned with understanding why things happen in geographical spaces. Johann Heinrich von Th√ľnen (1783-1850) was a farmer on the north German plain, and he developed the foundation of rural land use theory. Because he was a keen observer of the landscape around him, he noticed that similar plots of land in different locations were often used for very different purposes. He concluded that these differences in land use between plots with similar physical characteristics might be the result of differences in location relative to the market. Thus, he went about trying to determine the role that distance from markets plays in creating rural land-use patterns. He was interested in finding laws that govern the interactions between agricultural prices, distance, and land use as farmers sought to make the greatest profit possible.

The von Th√ľnen model is focused on how agricultural is distributed around a city in concentric circles. The dot represents a city, and the first ring (white) is dedicated to market gardening and fresh milk production. That is because of milk products and garden crops, such as lettuce, spoil quickly. Remember that at the time von Th√ľnen developed this model, there was no refrigeration, so it was necessary to get perishable produce to the market immediately. Because of this, producers of perishable crops were willing to outbid producers of less perishable crops to gain access to the land closest to the market. This means that land close to the community created a higher level of economic rent.

Johann Heinrich von Th√ľnen’s model of agricultural distribution around a city in concentric circles (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

The second ring, von Th√ľnen believed, would be dedicated to the production and harvest of forest products. This was because, in the early 19th century, people used wood for building, cooking, and heating. Wood is bulky and heavy and therefore difficult to transport. Still, it is not nearly as perishable as milk or fresh vegetables. For those reasons, von Th√ľnen reasoned that wood producers would bid more for the second ring of land around the market center than all other producers of food and fiber, except for those engaged in the production of milk and fresh vegetables.

The third ring, von Th√ľnen believed, would be dedicated to crop rotation systems. In his time, rye was the most important cash grain crop. Inside the third ring, however, von Th√ľnen believed there would be differences in the intensity of cultivation. Because the cost of gaining access to the land (rent) drops with distance from the city, those farming at the other edges of the ring would find that lower rents would offset increased transportation costs. Moreover, because those farming the outer edges would pay less rent, the level of input they could invest prior to reaching the point of decreasing marginal returns (the term ‚Äúmarginal returns‚ÄĚ refers to changes in production relative to changes in input), would be at a lower level than would be the case for those paying higher rent to be closer to the market. Therefore, they would not farm as intensely as those working land closer to the urban center.

The fourth ring would be dedicated to livestock ranching. Von Th√ľnen reasoned that unlike perishable or bulky items, animals could be walked to the market. Additionally, products such as wool, hide, horn, and so on could be transported easily without concern about spoilage.

In von Th√ľnen‚Äô s model, wilderness bounded the outer margins of von Th√ľnen‚Äô s Isolated state. These lands, he argued, would eventually develop rent value, as the population of the state increased. Thus, in this fundamental theory, the only variable was the distance from the market.

Von Th√ľnen was a farmer, and as such, he understood that his model did not exist in the whole of the real world. He developed it as an analytical tool that could be manipulated to explain rural land-use patterns in a world of multiple variables. To do this, Von Th√ľnen relaxed his original assumptions, one at a time, to understand the role of each variable.

One of the more stringent assumptions in the Von Th√ľnen model was his assumption that all parts of the state would have equal access to all other parts of the nation (with distance being the only variable allowed). He knew that this did not represent reality because already in his time, some roads were better than others, railways existed, and navigable water routes significantly reduced the friction of distance between the places they served. Therefore, he introduced a navigable waterway into his model, and found that because produce would be hauled to docks on the stream for transport, each zone of production would elongate along the stream.

Von Th√ľnen model, left – modified by a river, right by George Van Otten and Dennis Bellafiore (https://www.e-

Von Th√ľnen also considered what would happen if he relaxed his assumption that production costs were equal in all ways except for the costs associated with distance from the market. Eventually, as he worked with his model, he began to consider the effects of differences in climates, topography, soils, and labor. Each of these could serve to benefit or restrict production in a given place. For example, lower wages might offset the advantages realized by being near a market. The difference in the soil might also offset the advances of being close to the market. Thus, a farmer located some distance from the market with access to well-drained, well-watered land with excellent soil, and low-cost labor nearby, might be willing to pay higher rent for the property in question even if it were a bit further from the market than another piece of land that did not have such amenities.

Von Th√ľnen‚Äôs concentric circles were the result of the limits he imposed on his model in order to remove all influences except for distance. Once real-world influences are allowed to invade the model, the concentric land-use pattern does not remain in place. Modern technology, such as advances in transportation systems, increasingly complicates the basic concentric circle model. Recent changes, like the demand for agricultural products, also influence land-use patterns.

Changes in demand for farm products often have dramatic impacts on land uses. For example, when fuel production companies demanded dramatically increased quantities of corn to produce ethanol, and the price of corn rose accordingly, farmers responded by shifting from other food crops to ethanol-producing corn. As a result, land well suited for corn production now sells at premium prices (in Iowa and other corn-producing states, an acre of farmland may bring $12,000.00 or more). Currently, there is little extra farmland available upon which an expansion might take place. Therefore, changes in demand typically result in farmers shifting to crops that will bring the highest return.

The mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon provides another example of how changes in demand affect agricultural land uses. For years, the mid-Willamette Valley was the site of many medium-sized grain farms. The primary grain crops included wheat, barley, oats, Austrian peas, and clover. Also, farmers in the region produced row crops, orchard crops, hay, and grass seed. During the 1970s, in response to increasing demand, the price of grass seed increased dramatically. As a result, Willamette Valley farmers quickly changed their focus from the production of grain to grass seed. Soon after, several grain processing facilities closed, and grass seed cleaning, storage, and market facilities opened. There were other unexpected impacts, as well. For example, Willamette Valley grain farms once provided excellent habitat for Chinese pheasants. Pheasants eat grain, but they do not eat grass seed. When the grain fields disappeared, so, too, did the pheasants.

Like pheasants, people do not eat grass seed. On the other hand, oats, wheat, and barley are all food crops. Once a nation can meet its basic food needs, agriculture can meet other demands, such as the demand for Kentucky bluegrass for use on golf courses, lawns, and other landscaping. As incomes go up, the demand for food crops will grow proportionately. Eventually, however, when the demand for food is satiated, subsequent increases in income will no longer bring corresponding increases in the demand for food. This is the result of the elasticity of demand relative to changes in income. The measure of elasticity of demand is calculated by noting the amount of increase in demand for an item that a unit of increase in income generates. For example, luxury products such as expensive wines have a high elasticity of demand, whereas more common items such as rice have a low elasticity of demand. Once a family has all the rice they can typically eat, it will not purchase more as a result of more income. More income, however, would likely bring an increase in the consumption of prime cuts of beef or other such luxury foods.

New technologies in transportation, agricultural production, and the processing of food and fiber often have substantial impacts on the use of rural land. Technological changes mainly influence transportation. For example, the construction of the rail lines that connected the Midwestern United States with the market centers of the East made it possible for farmers in Iowa, Illinois, and other prairie states to improve their profits by feeding the corn they grew to hogs which they then shipped to the markets in the east. This is because the value of a pound of pork has always been far greater than the value of a pound of corn. Thus, by feeding the corn to the hogs, and then shipping the hogs, the farmers could earn greater profits because the shipping costs of their product were lower. In a sense, the farmers were selling corn on the hoof. Without easy access to railheads, this profitable agricultural scheme would not have been possible.

Of course, some folks have specialized in selling corn after it has been distilled into a liquid form. When the sale of alcohol was illegal in the USA, the transport of “liquid corn” was made easier when, in 1932, Henry Ford introduced the Ford V8, thereby enabling “Moonshiners” to move their product from hidden distilleries to waiting markets without being caught by the police. Additionally, “moonshiners” became expert mechanics who could turn a standard 60 horsepower V8 into a powerful, fast, agile machine. People who specialized in modifying these stock cars became pioneers in NASCAR racing.

Over the years, improvements in technologies have tended to drive down the relative costs associated with shipping farm produce. Furthermore, inventions such as refrigerated rail cars and trucks have eliminated some of the land- use constraints that once limited the locational choices of farmers who produced perishable goods. Less expensive haulage costs, decreased transit times, and better handling and processing methods have all served to make transportation systems more efficient and, hence, less expensive.

In theory, this should serve to reduce the importance of distance relative to other non-distance factors. Consider how far from the market a producer of fresh vegetables could locate in the early 19th century. The lack of all-weather roads and reliance on the transportation conveyances of the time (human and animal power) dictated a production location within a few miles of the market. The creation of all-weather roads that could be traversed by a horse and wagon, however, changed the situation. Without the roads, fresh vegetable growers would have been forced to pay high prices for land very near the market. With the roads, they were able to use less expensive land and still get their crops to market before spoilage made it impossible to sell them.

If the creation of an all-weather road made such a difference in land uses, imagine the impacts of the refrigerated aircraft now used to deliver loads of fresh flowers. Currently, many of the fresh flowers sold in US supermarkets come to the United States from the Netherlands via giant jet transport aircraft. This technology has significantly altered the importance of distance relative to the production of fresh flowers.

The Future of Farming and Agriculture


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Introduction to Human Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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