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Agricultural Geography

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Agricultural Geography

Ah, the countryside! In the US lexicon, the very word conjures up images of people in cowboy hats driving big green tractors through golden fields of grain. Large red barns full of adorable baby farm animals are bathed in fresh air under a bright sun.

Of course, this quaint image of the countryside can be deceiving. Agriculture is no joke. Being responsible for feeding the entire human population is hard work. What of agricultural geography? Is there an international divide, not to mention an urban-rural divide, in where farms are located? What are the approaches to agriculture, and which areas are most likely to encounter these approaches? Let's take a trip to the farm.

Agricultural Geography Definition

Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants and animals for human use. Plants and animal species that are used for agriculture are usually domesticated, meaning they have been selectively bred by people for human use.

Agricultural Geography, Agricultural Geography Definition, Livestock Agriculture, Domesticated Species, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cows are a domesticated species used in livestock agriculture

There are two main types of agriculture: crop-based agriculture and livestock agriculture. Crop-based agriculture revolves around the production of plants; livestock agriculture revolves around the maintenance of animals.

When we think of agriculture, we usually think of food. Most plants and animals in agriculture are grown or fattened for the purpose of ultimately being eaten in the form of fruits, grains, vegetables, or meat. However, that is not always the case. Fiber farms raise livestock for the purpose of harvesting their fur, wool, or fiber rather than meat. Such animals include alpacas, silkworms, Angora rabbits, and Merino sheep (although fiber may sometimes simply be a side-product of meat production). Similarly, crops such as rubber trees, oil palm trees, cotton, and tobacco are grown for the non-food products that can be harvested from them.

When you combine agriculture with geography (the study of place) you get agricultural geography.

Agricultural geography is the study of the distribution of agriculture, especially in relation to humans.

Agricultural geography is a form of human geography that seeks to explore where agricultural development is located, as well as why and how.

Development of Agricultural Geography

Thousands of years ago, most humans acquired food through hunting wild game, gathering wild plants, and fishing. The transition to agriculture began around 12,000 years ago, and today, less than 1% of the global population still acquires the majority of their food from hunting and gathering.

Around 10,000 BC, many human societies began transitioning to agriculture in an event dubbed "the Neolithic Revolution." Most of our modern agricultural practices emerged around the 1930s as part of "the Green Revolution."

The development of agriculture is tied to arable land, which is land that is capable of being used for crop growth or livestock pasture. Societies that had access to a greater quantity and quality of arable land could transition to agriculture more easily. However, societies with a greater abundance of wild game and less access to arable land would feel less of an impetus to stop hunting and gathering.

Examples of Agricultural Geography

Physical geography can have a profound effect on agricultural practices. Take a look at the map below, which shows relative arable land by country. Our modern cropland can be correlated to the arable land people had access to in the past. Notice that there is relatively little arable land in the Sahara Desert in North Africa or the cold environment of Greenland. These places simply cannot support large-scale crop growth.

Agricultural Geography, Examples of Agricultural Geography, Arable Land Map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Arable land by country as defined by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization

In some areas with less arable land, people may turn almost exclusively to livestock agriculture. For example, in North Africa, hardier animals like goats need little subsistence to survive and can provide a stable source of milk and meat for humans. However, larger animals like cattle require quite a bit more food to survive, and therefore require access to larger pastures with plenty of greens, or feed in the form of hay—both of which require arable land, and neither of which a desert environment can support. Similarly, some societies may get most of their food from fishing, or be forced to import most of their food from other countries.

Not all of the fish we consume are caught wild. See our explanation of Aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms, like tuna, shrimp, lobster, crab, and seaweed.

Even though agriculture is a human activity and exists within a human-constructed artificial ecosystem, agricultural products in their raw forms are considered natural resources. Agriculture, like the collection of any natural resources, is considered part of the primary economic sector. Check out our explanation on Natural Resources for more info!

Approaches of Agricultural Geography

There are two main approaches to agriculture: subsistence farming and commercial farming.

Subsistence farming is farming that revolves around growing food only for yourself or a small community. Commercial farming revolves around growing food on a large scale to be sold for profit commercially (or otherwise redistributed).

The smaller scale of subsistence farming means there is less need for large industrial equipment. Farms may be just a few acres large, or even smaller. On the other hand, commercial farming can span several dozen acres to even thousands of acres, and usually requires industrial equipment to manage. Typically, if a nation incentivizes commercial agriculture, subsistence agriculture will decline. With their industrial equipment and government-subsidized prices, large-scale commercial farms tend to be more efficient on a national scale than a bunch of subsistence farms.

Not all commercial farms are large. A small farm is any farm that grosses less than $350,000 per year (and thus includes subsistence farms as well, which theoretically gross almost nothing).

US farming production expanded dramatically in the 1940s to meet the needs of World War II. This need decreased the prevalence of "the family farm"—small subsistence farms used to meet the food needs of a single family—and increased the prevalence of large-scale commercial farms. Small farms now account for only 10% of US food production.

The spatial distribution of these different approaches can usually be tied to economic development. Subsistence agriculture is now more common in Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, while commercial agriculture is more common in most of Europe, the United States, and China. Large-scale commercial farming (and subsequent widespread availability of food) has been seen as a benchmark of economic development.

To make the most of smaller farms, some farmers practice intensive farming, a technique through which lots of resources and labor are put into a relatively small agricultural area (think plantations and the like). The opposite of this is extensive farming, where less labor and resources are put into a larger agricultural area (think nomadic herding).

Agriculture and Rural Land-Use Patterns and Processes

Besides spatial distribution of farming approaches based on economic development, there is also a geographic distribution of farmland based on urban development.

The greater the area occupied by urban development, the less space there is for farmland. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that, because rural areas have less infrastructure, they have more space for farms.

A rural area is an area outside of cities and towns. A rural area is sometimes called "the countryside" or "the country."

Because farming requires so much land, by its very nature, it defies urbanization. You can't exactly build a lot of skyscrapers and highways if you need to use the space to grow corn or maintain a pasture for your cattle.

Agricultural Geography, Agriculture and Rural Land-Use Patterns and Processes, StudySmarterFig. 3 - food grown in rural areas is often transported to urban areas

Urban farming or urban gardening involves transforming some parts of the city into small gardens for local consumption. But urban farming does not produce nearly enough food to meet urban consumption needs. Rural agriculture, especially large-scale commercial agriculture, makes urban life possible. In fact, urban life is dependent upon rural agriculture. Massive quantities of food can be grown and harvested in rural areas, where population density is low, and transported to cities, where population density is high.

Significance of Agricultural Geography

The distribution of agriculture—who is able to grow food, and where they can sell it—can have a profound impact on global politics, local politics, and the environment.

Dependence on Foreign Agriculture

As we mentioned earlier, some countries lack the arable land necessary for a robust native agricultural system. Many of these countries are forced to import agricultural products (especially food) to meet the needs of their populations.

This may make some countries dependent upon other countries for their food, which can put them in a perilous position if that food supply is disrupted. For example, countries like Egypt, Benin, Laos, and Somalia are highly dependent upon wheat from Ukraine and Russia, the export of which was disrupted by the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The lack of stable access to food is called food insecurity.

Social Polarization in the United States

Due to the very nature of agriculture, most farmers must live in rural areas. The spatial disparities between the countryside and the cities can sometimes produce very different outlooks on life for a variety of reasons.

Particularly in the United States, these distinct living environments contribute to social polarization in a phenomenon called the urban-rural political divide. On average, urban citizens in the US tend to be more left-leaning in their political, social, and/or religious views, while rural citizens tend to be more conservative. This disparity can be amplified the further removed urbanites become from the agricultural process. It can also be amplified further if commercialization reduces the number of small farms, making rural communities even smaller and more homogenous. The less these two groups interact, the greater the political divide becomes.

Agriculture, the Environment, and Climate Change

If nothing else, one thing should be clear: no agriculture, no food. But the long struggle to feed the human population through agriculture has not been without its challenges. Increasingly, agriculture faces the problem of meeting human food needs while reducing environmental impacts.

Expanding the amount of land that is available to use for farming often comes at the expense of chopping down trees (deforestation). While most pesticides and fertilizers increase farming efficiency, some can cause environmental pollution. The pesticide Atrazine, for example, was shown to cause frogs to develop hermaphroditic characteristics.

Agriculture is also one of the leading causes of climate change. The combination of deforestation, the use of agricultural equipment, large herds (especially cattle), food transportation, and soil erosion contributes large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, causing the globe to heat up through the greenhouse effect.

However, we need not pick between climate change and starvation. Sustainable farming practices like crop rotation, crop coverage, rotational grazing, and water conservation can reduce agriculture's role in climate change.

Agricultural Geography - Key takeaways

  • Agricultural geography is the study of the distribution of agriculture.
  • Subsistence agriculture revolves around growing food to feed only yourself or your immediate community. Commercial agriculture is large-scale agriculture that is meant to be sold or otherwise redistributed.
  • Arable land is especially common in Europe and India. Countries without access to arable land may depend on international trade for food.
  • Farming is more practical in rural areas. Large quantities of food can be grown in the countryside and delivered to urban areas for consumption.
  • Agriculture contributes to environmental degradation and climate change, but many of these negative effects can be and are being solved through sustainable agricultural practices.

References

  1. Fig. 2: Arable land map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Share_of_land_area_used_for_arable_agriculture,_OWID.svg) by Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-land-area-used-for-arable-agriculture) licensed by CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Agricultural Geography

A: Agricultural geography is largely defined by the availability of arable land and open spaces. Agriculture is more prevalent in countries with plenty of arable land. Inevitably, farming is also tied to rural areas, versus urban areas, due to available space.

A: Agricultural geography is the study of the distribution of agriculture, especially in relation to human spaces. Agricultural geography is essentially the study of where farms are located, and why they are located there.

A: The main factors affecting agriculture are: arable land; availability of land; and, in the case of livestock agriculture, the hardiness of species. Most farms will therefore be found in open, rural spaces with great soil for crop or pasture growth. Areas without these things (ranging from cities to desert-based nations) depend on outside agriculture.

A: Agricultural geography can help us understand global politics, in that one country may become dependent upon another for food. It can also help explain social polarization and agricultural effects on the environment. 

A: Not all countries have equal access to arable land. For example, you cannot support widespread rice cultivation in Egypt or Greenland! Agriculture is not only limited by physical geography but also human geography; urban gardens cannot generate nearly enough food to feed an urban population, so cities are dependent upon rural farms. 

Final Agricultural Geography Quiz

Question

What is agricultural geography?

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Agricultural geography is the study of the distribution of agriculture. 

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What is the difference between crop-based agriculture and livestock agriculture?

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Crop-based agriculture revolves around plants; livestock agriculture revolves around livestock. 

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What is aquaculture?

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Aquatic-based farming

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Which of the following events is most associated with the emergence of modern farming practices?

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The Green Revolution

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What is arable land? 

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Arable land is land that is capable of being used for agriculture. 

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Explain the relationship between arable land and international trade. 

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Countries with less arable land may have to import most of their agricultural products from countries with more arable land since they are less able to grow agricultural products themselves.

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Economically, agricultural products are considered: 

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Natural resources

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A small farm is a farm that:

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Grosses less than $250,000 per year

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Explain the relationship between agriculture and urban and rural spaces. 

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Agriculture is less practical in urban areas due to a lack of space. Cities and towns are usually dependent on large-scale rural agriculture for food. 

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Urban farming: 

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Usually does not produce enough food to meet urban needs

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Explain how rural agriculture can contribute to the urban-rural political divide.

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Because large-scale farming requires living in rural spaces, urban and rural groups may not interact very much, despite being dependent upon each other. This contributes to the growth of independent worldviews.

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What percent of the global population still gets the majority of their food from traditional hunting and gathering?

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Less than 1%

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What is the difference between subsistence farming and commercial farming? 

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Subsistence farming is farming that is meant to provide food for yourself or a small community. Commercial farming is the growth of large quantities of food for profit or other distribution. 

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Explain the relationship between agriculture and deforestation. 

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Trees may be cut down to create more space for farming. Deforestation can contribute to climate change.

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According to the Von Thünen Model, in what concentric ring would wheat, oats, and corn be grown for the market?

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In the grains ring.

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(True or False) The Von Thünen Model is an accurate representation of an agricultural landscape of early 19th-century Germany.

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False. The model is an abstraction called the "Isolated State" that simplifies actual conditions.

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According to the Von Thünen Model, where would farmers have grown mushrooms, and why?

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In the intensive agriculture/dairy zone, because they are highly perishable (spoil easily) so they need to be close to market.

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What do you think would happen to the concentric rings if a railroad was built from the ranching zone straight to the market?

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The railroad would decrease costs and speed of transport, allowing perishable products to be grown farther away, at least if they were close to the railroad. Can you think of other effects?

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How would the presence of a river winding through an agricultural landscape and to the market town affect the Von Thünen Model?

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A river might decrease the costs of transport from farm to market but only if it was navigable or had an associated canal. It might not decrease costs if it had many meanders, increasing the distance to the market. Can you think of other effects? 

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How would a range of rocky hills close to the market town affect the Von Thünen Model?

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The hills might be useful for grazing but unless they had really good soil would not be profitable for intensive agriculture or maybe even for grains. They would increase transport costs for farms on the far side, as farmers might have to go around them to get to market, therefore increasing the distance they have to travel. Can you think of other effects?

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In the "Isolated State," do people use the concentric ring of forests to pick berries or enjoy nature?

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No. The forest ring is an economic zone that functions to supply wood for the needs of the market. If it is more profitable for farms than for wood (say, wood is being shipped from elsewhere), the trees, according to the model, should be cut down and crops grown there.

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According to the assumptions of the Von Thünen Model, commercial farmers behave:

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rationally

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What three uses did a German farmer have for rye in the Von Thünen Model?

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-to sell at market

-to pay his laborers with in lieu of cash

-to feed his animals with

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(True or False) According to von Thünen, a rational farmer would be able to grow rye pretty much anywhere.

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False. Rye would rationally be grown in the grains zone and no farther than about 230km from the market.

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Which of the following is a cultural factor considered important by von Thünen?

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Germans prefer rye to wheat

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Which economist was most influential on von Thünen?

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David Ricardo

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How could you apply the Von Thünen Model to a city?

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The city would have a center and concentric rings, and each ring would have different economic functions and activities according to what land rents favored. Distance and cost of transportation would be factors.

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Why wouldn't ranchers in the "Isolated State" pasture sheep in the wilderness?

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Because it would not be profitable.

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In the Von Thünen Model, what would happen to the intensive agriculture/dairy zone with the introduction of the automobile?

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-As horses fell out of use, manure would not be available, so soil fertility might decrease and other fertilizers needed.

-People with automobiles might choose to live farther from the city, so productive farm land would be more valuable to landowners as suburbs rather than farms.

Can you think of other effects?

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An agricultural hearth is:

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an area where the origins of agricultural ideas and innovation began and spread from.

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What type of agricultural practice had to dominate for agricultural hearths to begin?

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Sedentary agriculture

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What is sedentary agriculture?

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An agricultural practice where the same land is used every year.

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What kind of urban settlement developed from sedentary agriculture?

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Agricultural villages

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What is Carl Sauer's Land of Plenty Hypothesis?

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Experimentation necessary in agriculture could only occur in lands of plenty, i.e., in areas with an abundance of natural resources.

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Where did Carl Sauer's Land of Plenty Hypothesis originate?

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Southeast Asia

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The Fertile Crescent is in

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Southwest Asia

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Wheat, barley, and oats were cultivated in

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the Fertile Crescent

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Sorghum and yams were cultivated in

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Mesoamerica

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Rice and soybeans were cultivated in

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East Asia

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The origin of maize

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is still disputed but its earliest origins were in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Peru)

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Agricultural hearths all have

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an abundance of water

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Agriculture was diffused through

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Trade

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The Silk Road is 

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a network of trade routes connecting Asia, the Middle East, and Europe together

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Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent used these inventions to assist them in farming practices

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Cuneiform (writing)

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What is urban farming?

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Urban farming is the cultivation of plants and animals for food within cities and suburbs.

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Why is the large-scale production of food more difficult in urban areas than in rural areas?

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Cities have less space to dedicate to farming, so rural areas with wide open land are more conducive to large farming operations.

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Which of the following are examples of an urban farm?

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Rooftop garden.

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What is a community garden?

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A garden maintained by members of the community usually with the purpose of providing that food to community members as well. 

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What major drawback of urban farming is solved with vertical farming?

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The lack of available land can be solved by building farms upward in cities.

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Which the following are major benefits to indoor farming techniques like hydroponics?

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Able to precisely control nutrients

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