Intensive Farming

Chances are, everything you ate today—whether it came from a grocery store or a restaurant—was a product of intensive farming. That's because most modern farming is intensive farming, and the large populations of the United States, China, and elsewhere would hardly be possible without it. 

Intensive Farming Intensive Farming

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Table of contents

    But what is intensive farming? We will overview intensive farming crops and practices—and discuss whether intensive farming has any long-term viability.

    Intensive Farming Definition

    Intensive farming boils down to large inputs of labor leading to large outputs of agricultural products.

    Intensive Farming: large inputs of labor/money relative to the size of the farmland.

    Intensive farming is characterized by efficiency: higher crop yields from smaller farms and more meat and dairy from fewer animals in smaller spaces. To achieve these ends, farmers may turn to some combination of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, heavy farm machinery, growth hormones, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It's all about making the best use of farm space and "getting the most bang for your buck."

    Extensive Farming vs Intensive Farming

    Extensive farming is the opposite of intensive farming: smaller inputs of labor relative to the land being farmed. If the goal is providing an agricultural product to as many people as possible, why on Earth would someone not want to practice intensive farming? Here are a few reasons:

    • Intensive farming is most feasible in temperate climates; intensive agriculture is not possible, for example, in a desert, without irrigation

    • Intensive farming requires economic and physical investments some farmers cannot afford

    • Intensive agriculture makes sense for commercial farmers, but may not be useful for subsistence farmers

    • Intensive crop cultivation can generate pollution and degrade soil quality if improperly managed

    • Intensive livestock agriculture can spread pollution and can be perceived as inhumane

    • Cultural practices favor traditional farming methods over new intensive farming methods

    There's also the underlying issue of land costs and bid-rent theory. Real estate tends to be more desirable (and consequently, more expensive) the closer it is to an urban central business district (CBD). Someone with a farm far away from any major city would feel less pressure to engage in intensive farming. That's not to say intensive farms are only found around cities, as government subsidies and transportation costs can render proximity to the city a moot point.

    Intensive Farming Crops

    Not all crops and livestock are compatible with intensive farming, but many are. In North America, the most intensively farmed crops are corn (maize) and soybeans.

    Maize was first domesticated in Mexico over 8 000 years ago. Cultures like the Olmec and Maya revered life-giving maize as sacred. During World War II, the US needed to push agricultural output to the max, and corn began to be grown abundantly. Those intensive systems remained in place, and since then, our use of corn has expanded. Check the ingredients list on any pre-packaged food: you are very likely to find corn starch or corn syrup.

    Intensive Farming, Intensive Farming Crops, Corn, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A corn field and silos in Indiana

    Corn goes hand-in-hand with soybeans, which were first cultivated in East Asia but now have a high demand in the US market. If you check the ingredients list on many processed foods, you are likely to find a soy derivative among them. Many corn farmers who practice crop rotation plant soybeans in their fields after the corn has been harvested.

    The sheer volume of corn and soybeans produced, over proportionally smaller areas, would be astonishing to the people who first cultivated these plants. This has been enabled by modern agricultural machinery, genetic modification of plants, and the use of modern chemicals to counteract pests and weeds and promote crop growth.

    Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years through selective breeding, and without the use of genetic modification, it would be significantly more difficult to produce enough food to meet population needs. However, the term "genetically modified organism" is now mostly associated with crop (and/or livestock) DNA manipulated in a laboratory, bypassing any "natural" processes that were once used to alter the shape and form of a domesticated species. Through genetic modification, biologists are able to improve the productivity and desirability of an individual plant, including the number of grains, fruits, tubers, or vegetables it can produce and its compatibility with pesticides and herbicides.

    GMOs have spurred concerns over what consumers are actually putting into their bodies as well as what rights humans have to manipulate other organisms in such a manner. This has given rise to the "organic" movement—coming to a grocery store near you, if it's not there already. These fruits and vegetables are typically more expensive because it is much less efficient to produce them.

    Other common intensive farming crops include wheat and rice as well as many other common items you can find at any local grocery store.

    Intensive Farming Practices

    Intensive farms range from small pastures where livestock are rotated in and out, to dense fields of corn, soy, or wheat, to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where, for example, 80,000 or more chickens are stuck in compact indoor enclosures for most or all of the year. In other words, there's quite a wide variety: as we mentioned in the introduction, most modern farming is intensive farming. Below, we will survey three intensive farming practices.

    Market Gardening

    Market gardens take up little space, but have a big production output.

    Market gardens may be an acre or smaller, and can even include greenhouses, but they are planned in such a way that a relatively large amount of food can be grown in a relatively small amount of space. Market gardens rarely focus on just one crop; most market gardeners grow many different foods. Relatively speaking, market gardens do not require a large economic investment, but do require high personal labor costs, and they maximize land use.

    Market gardeners may sell their products directly to consumers or restaurants rather than governments or grocery chains, and may actually be expressly developed to meet the specific needs of a restaurant.

    Plantation Agriculture

    Plantations take up a large space but go for maximum profit based on economies of scale.

    Plantation agriculture revolves around very large crop-based farms (plantations) designed to generate the most profit possible. To accomplish this, plantations take advantage of economies of scale. Larger initial start-up investments ultimately allow plantation farmers to produce items in greater quantity, allowing them to sell these items in a higher volume for less money.

    Intensive Farming, Intensive Farming Practices, Tea Plantation, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A tea plantation in Vietnam

    A plantation often focuses on one cash crop, like tobacco, tea, or sugar. Because plantations are typically very large, a huge amount of labor is required to plant and ultimately harvest the product. To cut labor costs, plantation managers either a) have just a few people doing the bulk of the labor using heavy agricultural machinery, or b) hire many unskilled laborers to do the bulk of the labor for low wages.

    In the US lexicon, the word "plantation" is strongly associated with pre-Civil War agricultural slave labor in the American South. For the AP Human Geography exam, keep in mind that "plantation" has a much broader connotation, including Southern plantations worked by sharecroppers well into the 20th century.

    Mixed Crop/Livestock Systems

    Mixed systems lower costs while maximizing efficiency.

    Mixed crop/livestock systems are farms that cultivate commercial crops and raise animals. The main goal here is to reduce costs by creating a self-sufficient structure: animal manure can be used as crop fertilizer, and crop "leftovers" can be used as animal feed. Livestock like chickens can be used as "natural" pesticides; they can eat bugs that might otherwise ruin the crops.

    Intensive Farming Examples

    Here are specific examples of intensive farming in action.

    Corn and Soy Farming in the American Midwest

    The midwestern region of the United States includes Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri. These states are renowned for their agricultural output in service to most of the rest of the country. In fact, around 127 million acres of the Midwest are farmland, and as much as 75% of those 127 million acres are devoted to corn and soybeans.1

    Intensive Farming, Intensive Farming Examples, Intensive Farming in the Midwest, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A soybean farm in Ohio

    Intensive crop cultivation in the Midwest relies mainly on the techniques we've already mentioned: chemical fertilizers and genetic modification ensure maximum plant growth, while chemical pesticides and herbicides prevent too many crops from being lost to weeds, insects, or rodents.

    Hog CAFOs in North Carolina

    Earlier, we briefly mentioned CAFOs. CAFOs are essentially large meat factories. Hundreds or thousands of animals are confined to small buildings, allowing meat to be produced as cheaply as possible and more widely available to the general public than anytime in history.

    Pork plays a large role in North Carolinian cuisine, and there are many hog CAFOs in southeastern North Carolina. Several counties have well above 50 000 hogs confined to CAFOs. A typical hog CAFO set-up in North Carolina will include two to six metal buildings, each holding 800 to 1 200 pigs.2

    While CAFOs like those in North Carolina have enabled widespread meat availability, concentrating that many animals in one area can cause serious pollution. Nutrients and hormones given to these animals, as well as the immense amount of waste being produced by the animals, can significantly deteriorate local air and water quality.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Intensive Farming

    Intensive farming has several advantages:

    • Relegates farming to concentrated spaces, freeing up land for other uses

    • The most efficient type of farming with regard to production

    • Able to feed and sustain large human populations

    That last bullet point is the key. As the human population continues to grow, intensive farming will likely become the only way to make sure all eight billion (and counting) humans are fed. Farms need to yield more and more crops more and more efficiently. We cannot go back to relying exclusively on extensive agriculture any more than we can go back to relying exclusively on hunting and gathering.

    However, intensive farming is not without its downsides:

    • Cannot be practiced in every climate, meaning some human populations depend upon others for food

    • High pollution associated with the chemicals that make intensive crop cultivation possible

    • Soil degradation and desertification possible if soil becomes worn out due to intensive practices

    • High pollution associated with the industrial livestock farms (like CAFOs) that make widespread meat consumption possible

    • Generally, worse quality of life for most livestock

    • Major contributor to global warming via deforestation, heavy machinery use, and transportation

    • Cultural erosion as longstanding farming traditions (like those of the Maasai pastoralists or Texas ranchers) are deemphasized in favor of more efficient globalized intensive practices

    Intensive farming in its current form is not a sustainable endeavor—at the rate of usage, our farmland will ultimately give out. However, given our current global population size, intensive farming is our only realistic path forward, for now. Meanwhile, farmers and crop scientists are working together to find ways to make intensive farming sustainable to keep people fed for generations to come.

    Intensive Farming - Key takeaways

    • Intensive farming involves large inputs of labor/money relative to the size of the farmland.
    • Intensive agriculture is all about efficiency—producing as much food as possible, proportionally.
    • Major intensive farming crops include corn and soybeans, as well as wheat and rice.
    • Intensive farming practices include market gardening, plantation agriculture, and mixed crop/livestock systems.
    • Intensive farming practices allow agriculture to keep pace with population growth but can be very harmful to the environment.


    1. Agriculture in the Midwest | USDA Climate Hubs. Retrieved from
    2. Duke University. (2016). A Look At Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in North Carolina. Retrieved from
    Frequently Asked Questions about Intensive Farming

    What is intensive farming?  


    What are the characteristics of intensive farming?  


    Is intensive farming sustainable? 


    How can intensive farming damage the environment?  


    How does intensive farming increase the efficiency of food production? 


    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Your friend has inherited a family hog farm. She says she now owns 5000 hogs and that they are living in six buildings. Is this an example of intensive farming or extensive farming? 

    Your friend is thinking of buying a five-acre plot of land in Illinois to operate a small sheep farm with a dozen animals. He said he will focus on agritourism and wool sales. Is this an example of intensive farming or extensive farming? 

    Intensive farming is characterized by a _____ input of labor/money and a _____ output of agricultural products. 

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