Types of Agriculture

Today across the world, agriculture takes many different shapes. Big farms, small farms, many crops, few crops – there are many variations. It can be hard to keep track of the different varieties and aspects of modern agriculture, but let's break it down into different types of agriculture. Today we'll be honing in on the types of agriculture in the United States, but we'll touch on how it looks elsewhere too.

Types of Agriculture Types of Agriculture

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Table of contents

    Main Types of Agriculture

    Agriculture looks very different depending on the development level of a country, its climatic conditions, and its traditions.

    Commercial Agriculture

    This type of agriculture is, first and foremost, built around making money for the farmer. Every stage of the farming process is made as efficient as possible, so there are the least amount of costs. Keeping efficiency in mind, these operations are also some of the most technologically advanced, using everything from autonomous tractors and drones to satellite imaging to make sure they can grow as much as possible with the most negligible costs.

    Large-scale commercial farming operations dominate in more developed areas like the US, Canada, and Europe. Monocropping is also more common in these operations because focusing on a single well-priced crop can drive up profits. Common examples include sugar cane, corn, and soybeans. A vital feature of this type of agriculture is that the amount of people employed in it is relatively small compared to subsistence or non-commercial operations. Labour is costly, and advances in technology made it so few people are needed to upkeep and run commercial farming operations. Today, farming tasks like harvesting using a combine harvester are almost entirely automated, just needing a human to monitor the equipment and step in if something goes wrong.

    Types of agriculture combine harvester StudySmarterFig. 1 - Combine harvester in Orkney, Scotland

    Most commercial agricultural operations are considered to be a form of intensive farming. Intensive farming has high inputs of agrochemicals, mechanization, and other technology to obtain the most yield from the land. Intensive farming is very costly, so it's almost always employed in commercial operations where revenues offset the cost of running the farm.

    Subsistence Farming

    Contrary to commercial farming, the main goal of subsistence farming is to feed the farmer and their own family/community. Subsistence farms often rely on human and animal labour, with low degrees of mechanization. These farms are most common in less-developed countries (LDCs). Far more people work on these farms compared to commercial ones too.

    Contrary to commercial farming, extensive farming is a characteristic of subsistence agriculture. Extensive farming requires much less money, agrochemicals, and equipment to undertake, so it's ideal for farmers just trying to provide sustenance. However, yields are lower with extensive farming, which may or may not be an issue depending on just how many have to be fed. Keep in mind that some types of commercial farms practice extensive farming, usually in the form of ranching operations.

    Types of Agriculture in the US

    Agriculture in the United States is almost exclusively commercial. In the US's early history, subsistence farming was common, and Native Americans exclusively practised it. Driven by the Second Agricultural Revolution, advances from Great Britain made their way to the United States, propelling agricultural productivity higher and higher. With farming becoming more productive, not everyone had to work on a farm in order to feed themselves. As productivity grew, so too did the profitability of agriculture.

    Older types of farming are not entirely gone, however. Some Native American tribes and other groups in the United States preserve their old farming traditions not just as a way of providing food but also as a way of connecting directly to their cultural traditions. Religious and spiritual practices may sometimes be associated with farming as well.

    The Amish are a religious and cultural group in the United States originating from a protestant Christian movement in Europe. Today they are notable for rejecting modern conveniences like phones and cars in favor of a more old-fashioned way of life. Some Amish groups also reject modern farming equipment, choosing to use animal and hand labor to work fields. The most stringent Amish communities also practice subsistence farming, selling only a nominal amount of goods and handicrafts for money.

    Mechanized Farming

    Among commercial operations, farming in the United States is highly mechanized at every level. Mechanized farming is the introduction of machines and technology to perform agricultural tasks. Equipment like tractors may seem simple, but the tractors of today are at the cutting edge of technology. Depending on the task, tractors can have GPS integration, drone control terminals, real-time satellite imaging, and more. Foremost innovators in the field of mechanized farming, like John Deere, are headquartered in the United States, and there's a thriving startup industry too. New equipment dramatically increases the efficiency of farming operations but rarely comes cheap. In this regard, it's difficult for small family farms to stay on top of innovations, even if they could help them make more money.

    Types of Agriculture Map

    While it's hard to exactly pinpoint across the globe which farms are what type, using data on how many people are employed in agriculture can shed some light. Keep in mind, highly mechanized commercial farming operations are highly productive and, as such, need fewer people compared to subsistence agriculture.

    Types of Agriculture Map of ag employment StudySmarterFig. 2 - Percentage of workers working in agriculture map

    At first glance, it seems that the countries with a high percentage of workers employed in farming must therefore be the commercial dominant regions. However, we know that farming operations with high levels of mechanization and agrochemical use tend to be almost exclusively commercial and require fewer people to work them. From this map, it's clear that places like Western Europe and the US, and Canada have high levels of mechanization and agrochemical use in their commercial operations.

    Looking at countries in most of the African continent, it's clear that a very high percentage of the workforce is employed in agriculture. We can extrapolate that there are low levels of agricultural mechanization, and farmers likely must subsist on some of the crops they grow as well.

    The general lower economic prosperity suggests that subsistence farming is probably more common in these regions too. Citizens may need to grow some of their own food if they cannot afford to buy much or if the infrastructure to purchase food is lacklustre. However, many subsistence farmers also sell some of their crops. In today's globally connected world, it's hard to find places where a farm is 100% subsistence; the need for some money is essential everywhere, so the selling of agricultural products is inevitable.

    Small Family Farms

    Believe it or not, commercial farming operations can also be considered small family farms. A family farm is one that is owned by a family, usually passed on from one generation to the next. Family farms also exist in subsistence farming, where most family members are active participants in its day-to-day operation. In the United States, over 90% of all farms are considered family farms by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA.)

    Family farms can be further defined based on their size and the revenue they bring in, with the USDA setting different categories like large family farms and mid-size family farms. The USDA defines a small family farm as having less than US$350,000 (∼£285,000) in revenue from its agricultural products. Historically, small family farms were the only type of farm to exist in the US. Like with most industries, farming is experiencing an increase in large companies taking over small family operations.

    Types of Agriculture Family farm StudySmarterFig. 3 - Family farm in Santa Catarina, Brazil

    Facing international price competition and better-funded competitors, family farmers are struggling to maintain their way of life and industry. These factors are driving farmers to take up buyout offers from companies and turn to bankruptcy protections. Institutional players like agricultural corporations have more resources to handle price shocks and make the necessary investments in equipment to stay productive, which makes it harder for small farms to compete.

    Economies of Scale

    A fundamental concept in business, economies of scale is what allows you access to an abundance of food at a relatively low cost. Think about what it would take for you to bake a loaf of bread 100% from scratch. You'd need land to plant wheat, equipment to process it into flour, and have to grow your own yeast. In the end, it would be a very, very expensive and time-consuming process. Instead, we can go to the store and purchase bread made by a large company for much cheaper. Thanks to economies of scale, the cost of producing one product goes down the more of it you make overall.

    When it comes to farming, the same idea applies. If a farmer only raised a single pig, the costs for that one pig are high compared to the cost per pig if they raised 100 of them. Improvements in technology have also increased economies of scale, like improvements in fertilizers and better harvesting equipment. Economies of scale are critical to the success of commercial agricultural operations, especially because they invest in expensive farming equipment. Returning to small family farms, they are at a disadvantage due to economies of scale. A company that owns 100 farms has much fewer costs per individual farm owing to economies of scale.

    Types of Agriculture - Key takeaways

    • The main two types of agriculture are commercial and subsistence farming.
    • In the United States, commercial farming is overwhelmingly dominant, with high levels of mechanization.
    • Small family farms can be both commercial and subsistence, but they are slowly disappearing in favor of corporate ownership.
    • Economies of scale in agriculture have enabled more inexpensive food and are becoming even more significant due to technological advancements.


    1. Fig. 1 - Orkney combine harvester (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Deere_955_combine_harvester,_Orkney_Islands.jpg) by Robert Scarth (https://flickr.com/photos/18222776@N00/62899941) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 - Map of ag employment (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-the-labor-force-employed-in-agriculture) by Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/) is licensed by CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
    3. Fig. 3 - Family farm Brazil (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Urubici-_Rio_dos_Bugres_(15822089323).jpg) by Otávio Nogueira (https://www.flickr.com/people/55953988@N00) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Types of Agriculture

    What are the types of commercial agriculture?

    Commercial agriculture can take many different forms, but it's largely defined by the size of the operation. For example, there are large-scale commercial farms and small family farms that are considered types of commercial agriculture. 

    What are the types of agriculture?

    The main types of agriculture are commercial and subsistence agriculture. Farming types can also be divided by how farming is practiced, either extensively or intensively.

    How many types of agriculture are there?

    There are two main types of agriculture: commercial and subsistence.

    What types of agriculture are intensive?

    Intensive agriculture is mostly associated with commercial farming. It is most prevalent among large-scale commercial operations but even small family farms have elements of intensive farming.

    What are sustainable types of agriculture? 

    Any type of agriculture can be sustainable or unsustainable depending on the farmer's practices, which crops are grown/animals raised, and the area's environmental conditions.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following best characterize a small family farm in the United States? 

    The United States has approximately how many farms? 

    Which of the following is NOT a benefit of a small family farm? 


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