Early agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture and still prevalent in some parts of the world. From the primitive collection, some people have taken a step “up” on the economic scale by learning the art of domesticating plants and their economy has evolved to primitive culture. This type of agriculture is self-sufficient and farmers only grow food for themselves and their families. Some small surpluses can be exchanged or sold for cash.
The resulting economy is therefore static with little chance of improvement, but there is a high degree of rural independence as farmers are not tied to homeowners or shopping centres.
Primitive subsistence agriculture or shifting cultivation is characterized by the following characteristics:
( i ) The sites for the ladang are usually chosen in the virgin forest by experienced elders. Hill slopes are preferred because of better drainage. Many ladangs are located in remote interiors, away from major population centres.
It is partly for historical reasons that most shifting cultivators have been forced into less favourable areas by the expansion of more advanced farmers in the lower and better lands. Their isolation hinders their progress and makes the dissemination of new ideas more difficult.
(ii) Forests are usually cleared by fire and ashes add to soil fertility. Trees that are not burned are cut by men or abandoned to decompose naturally. Shifting cultivation is also called slash-and-burn agriculture.
(iii) The cultivated spots are usually very small; about 0.5-1 hectare (1-3 acres) dispersed in their distribution and separated from each other by dense forests or bush.
(iv) The culture is made with very primitive tools such as sticks and hoes, without the aid of machines or even dried animals. Much manual labour is needed for clearing to produce food for a few people.
Thus, despite the little attention paid to crops once planted, no other form of agriculture wastes as much human energy and is as unattractive as shifting cultivation.
(v) Few harvests are high in gear. The main crops are starchy foods such as tapioca, cassava or cassava, yams, corn or maize, millet, mountain rice, beans and bananas. The crops are sown at calculated intervals, often between other plants, so that the crop can be staggered to provide food all year round. The same types of crops are practiced on all farms.
(vi) Short periods of crop occupation alternate with long fallow periods. When yields can no longer sustain the community due to soil depletion or the invasion of weeds and shrubs, fields are abandoned and fresh areas are cleared. “Field rotation” rather than “crop rotation” is practiced.
(vii) This form of the “migratory agriculture" still supports the most indigenous tribes in the rainforest, in spite of efforts by local governments, as elements for reposing. Soil nutrient depletion, the deterioration of lightly constructed bamboo houses and the attacks of pests, diseases or wildlife are some of the main reasons that make migration a necessity.