Agrarian Economy: Definition & Overview

Agrarian Economy: Definition & Overview
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  • 0:00 Agrarian Economy
  • 0:43 Subsistence Agriculture
  • 2:35 Industrial Age…
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Learn the characteristics of agrarian economies and their development from the Agricultural Revolution to the modern era. Examine some specific examples and case studies, and test your understanding with a quiz.

Agrarian Economy

Imagine you planted a garden in your back yard and soon there are ripe tomatoes and peppers ready to be picked. You realize you have a few options: You can keep the tomatoes and peppers and eat them yourself, or you can sell them at the local farmers' market. Or, if you turn your small garden into a large, multi-acre farm, you could sell the produce in a bigger market--regional, national, or even international. These options represent the main features of an agrarian economy. An agrarian economy is rural rather than urban-based. It is centered upon the production, consumption, trade, and sale of agricultural commodities, including plants and livestock.

Subsistence Agriculture

Just as you might choose to eat the produce you grew in your own garden, the first farmers of the world did just that. Subsistence agriculture, as it is called, first emerged from the transition from hunting and gathering, around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, to settled agriculture. This taming of nature--or 'domestication'--allowed people to settle in one place because now there was a sufficient and reliable food source. Whether the planting and harvesting of wheat in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, or the growing of maize (corn) in the Americas, or the harvesting of rice in the river valleys of eastern China, the first agrarian economies produced food for themselves, not necessarily for sale or large-scale trade.

Between this Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, agrarian economies did not change significantly, though agrarian societies did become more connected with one another and increased trade. From a basis of subsistence agriculture, agrarian societies might then produce a surplus of goods and thus be able to trade it with neighbors or sell it at a relatively local level. For example, Chinese farmers took rice agriculture and transplanted it in areas of Southeast Asia, and the Roman Empire transferred grain throughout its provinces. Such trade connections expanded as well through the Silk Road across Eurasia and through the maritime trading routes of the Indian Ocean.

Despite these many links connecting agrarian economies between the time of the Agricultural Revolution and the modern period, most people still produced primarily for their own consumption rather than for the market. One reason for this is that transportation costs and technological limitations remained barriers to the creation of a truly continental or global market for agricultural goods. But all this began to change after 1500, and especially with the Industrial Revolution.

Industrial Age Agrarian Economies

The first important change in agrarian economies came with the development of new agricultural technologies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries during the Industrial Revolution. Such technologies allowed the production of larger and larger surpluses. For example, both the cotton gin and the mechanical grain reaper provided for harvests on a massive scale. New strains of seeds and plants allowed crops to grow more efficiently and in marginal areas.

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