Factors that affect the distribution of agriculture

You will need to be able to discuss factors that affect the global distribution of agricultural systems. The reasons are outlined below:

Climate

Climatic factors include...

1. Temperature:

Most plants cannot grow if the temperature falls below 6°C or the soil is frozen for five consecutive months. As a consequence many areas are unsuitable for crop cultivation.

2. The growing season:

The number of days between the last frost of the spring and the first of the autumn. Different crops require different lengths of growing season. Cotton needs 200 days so could not survive in a British climate. Cereal crops are grown in the South-east of Britain as this is the area most likely to meet the necessary growing season. The shorter the required growing season the further north that crop can be grown. Oats can be found in Northern parts of the UK because they have a very short growing season.

Crops

3. Altitude:

This affects temperature so it also affects farming. In the Alps for example you will find dairy farming in valley bottoms and coniferous forestry further up.

When temperatures are consistently high with sufficient precipitation high yield crops such as rise can be grown. These have the added advantage of producing up to three crops a year.

4. Rainfall:

Water is obviously a key factor in plant growth. The greater the average temperature the greater the amount of water required for plant growth. Seasonal variation is important as different crops require water at different times. Coffee for example must have a period of drought before and during harvest whilst maize would benefit from heavy rain in the same period. A farmer is therefore looking for rainfall reliability so that he can select the most appropriate crop for the area.

Rice is the principal crop in the tropics because it requires substantial quantities of water, is a very high yield crop and has good nutritional value. With the addition of consistently high temperatures it can also produce two or three crops a year.

In the Mediterranean crop growth is affected by the summer drought despite high annual rainfall. The rainfall is very high in winter months but infiltration rates are comparatively low. In summer temperatures are very high, encouraging high rates of evapo-transpiration and consequently very dry soil and a low water table. There is a soil moisture deficit. These conditions are not conducive to plant growth.

Crop growth

5. Wind:

Wind can have a destructive effect on crops. At its most severe a hurricane can physically destroy thousands of acres of farmland. Less severe but also harmful are the winds that dry soils so reducing moisture and increasing the potential for soil erosion.

Soil

Soil type will influence crop cultivation because different crops prefer different soils.

Clay soils with their high water retention are well suited to rice whilst sandy soils with good drainage are good for root vegetables.

Soil type can be influenced through the input of lime, clay or fertilizer but this can only make limited differences.

Slope

The angle of slope will affect the type, depth and moisture content of soil.

It will also affect the rate of soil erosion. Some of the most unique farming landscapes of Bali are a consequence of having to cultivate steep slopes that are prone to soil erosion. Here terraces are cut in to steep slopes to retain the soil that otherwise would be easily removed due by the heavy rains. The need to cultivate such steep slopes is a consequence of population pressure and very small farms due generations of sub-dividing amongst sons.

Bali farming

The degree to which a farm can be mechanised is influenced by slope. Many vineyards in Germany are still harvested by hand at great cost because of the steep slopes. This is despite the fact that Germany is one of the richest countries in the world with capital to take advantage of the latest technology.

Land tenure

In the developed world a large percentage of farmers are owner-occupiers. Consequently they have a large incentive to become more efficient and improve land and buildings. The extent of their investment and success will depend on the market place and political systems.

In the developing world farmers are less likely to be owner-occupiers. Instead they will probably be tenants or landless labourers.

In Brazil, the majority of land is owned by a small minority. As a consequence many of the farmers are 'landless' and sell their labour to the large plantation owners.

Tenants can operate under two systems:

  • A cash tenant will pay a fixed rent or percentage of profits to the landowner. This can lead to over cultivation especially if the rent or profit share is excessive. A long-term lease provides the farmer with more incentive to invest in the farm.
  • A crop sharing agreement can be reached where the farmer gives a significant percentage of his harvest to the landowner. These arrangements are likely to be skewed in favour of the landowner so the farmer remains poor.

The most likely outcome for both of these tenancy systems is that the landowner will benefit form the hard work of the farmer who is likely to remain poor.

In communist countries the collective system is more common. Communities are set up with state owned farms. The community must then manage and work the farm to achieve state targets of production.

Farmers who do not have security of tenure are less likely to invest in future improvements.

Market

For any commercial farm to succeed there must be demand. If the demand for a crop drops then profits will fall. That crop will then be replaced by a more profitable one.

Market

Conditions in the market place can be a consequence of numerous factors:

  1. Changes in society - the move towards vegetarianism or panic about beef.
  2. Health reasons - increased demand for olive oil or panic about beef.
  3. Health scares - the BSE crisis or panic about beef.
  4. Religion - Jews do not eat pork.
  5. Marketing - campaigns promoting products such as new breakfast cereals.

Transport

Transport is an important factor in determining location of farm types. If a product is bulky such as potatoes then it should be grown close to the market place to cut down on transport costs. If the good is perishable then again it should be grown close to the market place.

The effects of transport have been greatly reduced in the developed world because of innovations such as refrigerated lorries. It is still an important factor in many parts of the developing world.

The transportation available and the transport network will have a large influence on the distribution of agricultural systems. Many subsistence farms could not sell surpluses even if they had them because of the costs involved in transporting the surplus to the market place.

Capital

In the developed world there is a well-established system of supportive banks, private investors and government subsidies. This means that agriculture is likely to be capital intensive and highly mechanised. Cereal growing and dairy farming are good examples.

In the developing world the systems of capital support are less developed. In addition farmers have little capital of their own. Borrowing is difficult (especially with the small farms typical of many subsistence farmers) and incurs high interest rates. Therefore the farm will be very labour intensive.

If a farmer has little capital reserve then certain types of farming are not an option.

Whilst his crop is maturing the farmer will have no income, if the crop takes several years to mature then he needs substantial financial backing to cover costs of production (e.g. labour) and basic living costs like mortgage and food.

Tree crops take several years to mature so the farmer will have to wait a long time for return on his investment. If he does not have a capital reserve then this is not an option.

Technology

New technology is always increasing efficiency and yields but technology costs money. Therefore the gap between the developed and developing world is growing.

The one exception is the green revolution.

The green revolution was the result of an intensive plant-breeding programme in Mexico. It resulted in very high yield crops. Wheat varieties from Mexico and rice varieties from the Philippines literally doubled world food output.

The green revolution spread throughout much of the developing world and these new high yield crops - particularly rice became a common feature of agriculture. They did increase the need for irrigation and agro-chemicals that were too costly for small farmers and larger farmers with more financial backing gained the most benefit from these crops. Although there were improvements in quality of life for the poorer farmer.

As the rice produced such high yields farmer could dedicate more land to other crops that could be sold for cash.

Government

Government policies will have a direct or indirect effect on the prevalent agricultural system. The communist governments encourage collectives as already seen whilst farming in Europe is indirectly manipulated by the agricultural policies of the European Union.

Two examples are:

1. Common agricultural policy: the common agricultural policy was a response to food shortages during and after world war two. In 1957 it was decided that several European countries would all follow a common agricultural policy.

The aims of that policy were to:

  • Increase productivity and ensure a regular food supply
  • Improve farmers standard of living
  • Stabilize market prices at a level beneficial to farmers and reasonable for consumers

There were several policies designed to fulfill these aims. Amongst these were the price support policies. A price support policy aimed to guarantee a price to the farmer for a particular product and discourage competition from farmers outside the participant countries.

Basically a high price was set for any imports - this would be maintained by heavily taxing imported produce.

A lower guaranteed price was set for home grown products. If the market price fell below this then the European Commission would buy produce at the guaranteed price.

Put simple the EC said, "we'll give you so much per tonne for this crop. If you can sell it for more then do so if you can't then we'll buy it. Also you won't get any competition from outside the EC because we'll put a big import tax on their stuff so it is really expensive."

This gave farmers a great incentive to grow crops. So much so that they were soon producing far more than was needed. In 1990 the EC had food surpluses in milk, wheat, sugar, barley, rye, butter, beef, cheese, vegetables, chicken, pork, eggs, wine, margarine and potatoes.

Surpluses

So as a result of political policy the Europe had extremely efficient agricultural systems that were actually typified by over production.

In response to this a new policy of Quotas was set up where farmers were penalized for producing too much and "set aside":

2. Set aside: as a response to surpluses caused by the EC's price support system, farmers could receive substantial income for 'setting aside' land. Many British farmers received money to do nothing with their land in an attempt to reduce surpluses. This was also seen as a way of allowing the land to recover following many years of very intensive use.

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