Examples of Terrace Farming Around the World

This ancient technique transforms difficult terrain into arable land.

Beautiful terraced rice field in water season in Laocai province in Vietnam . (Photo: Jimmy Tran/Shutterstock)

The best farmland is typically a flat field with good irrigation. In fact, some crops like rice require a flat area in order to grow. So what do you do if you live in a hilly area and still need a way to grow food for your family or community? Humans came up with an elegant solution thousands of years ago, a solution that has been a primary factor in the growth of great civilizations.

Terrace farming is the practice of cutting flat areas out of a hilly or mountainous landscape in order to grow crops. It is a practice that has been in use from the rice fields of Asia to the steep slopes of the Andes in South America. Here is a look at how terrace farming has been used—and continues to be used—across the globe.

Terraced Paddy Field in Mae-Jam Village , Chaing mai Province. (Photo: tortoon/iStock)


Perhaps the most well-known use of terrace farming are the rice paddies of Asia. Rice needs a lot of water, and a flat area that can be flooded is best. But a big enough area of ideal topography is hard to find, which is why the smarter way is to use terrace farming. What at first looks like unusable land for rice becomes step after step of perfect small rice fields, adding up to an impressive overall yield.

Rice fields on terraced of Mu Cang Chai, YenBai, Vietnam. (Photo: Thampitakkull Jakkree/Shutterstock)

The use of terraces helps to prevent erosion and soil runoff, something that would be an immediate result of trying to till a hillside into farmland without using terraced steps. With this method, a hillside can remain productive for as long as the soil is properly cared for and the terraces maintained.

In fact, the high, steep rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, in Ifugao province, are thought to be up to 2,000 years old. They were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and are sometimes referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Fed by an ancient irrigation system that comes from rainforests located above the terraces, they were considered endangered for a while due to deforestation, but are now considered to be in a safer state.

Beautiful terraced rice fields of Bali, Indonesia. (Photo: EastVillage Images/Shutterstock)

Terrace farming is used for rice, barley, and wheat in east and southeast Asia and is a key part of the agricultural system. But Asian countries aren't the only ones with a handle on the terrace farming system.

Terrace farming is also ideal for vineyards and orchards, such as the vineyards in Serralunga d'Alba, Piemonte, Italy. (Photo: M^3 [CC BY 2.0]/Wikipedia Commons)

The Mediterranean

Countries around the Mediterranean Sea have used terrace farming for centuries to cultivate vineyards and orchards of olive, cork, and fruit trees. Lining hillsides and the steep slopes leading down to the coast are terraced areas that have been transformed into productive agricultural land for some of the favorite foods (and wines!) that come from those regions.

Terrace farms line the coastal hillside of the Lavaux region. (Photo: swisshippo/iStock)

The Lavaux region in Switzerland also makes use of terrace farming for vineyards that line the north side of Lake Geneva. The terraces can be traced all the way back to the 11th century.

Terrace farming is a primary reason why great civilizations could thrive in the South American jungles. Wiñay Wayna ruin near Machu Picchu. (Photo: Rasmus_Christensen/iStock)

South America

Meanwhile, civilizations in South America were also tapping into the potential of terrace farming long ago to feed large populations. Machu Picchu and surrounding ruins, pictured here, provide evidence for how the Incas mastered the agricultural practice.

Smithsonian Magazine writes, "The Andes are some of the tallest, starkest mountains in the world. Yet the Incas, and the civilizations before them, coaxed harvests from the Andes’ sharp slopes and intermittent waterways." The article goes on to explain some of the surprising benefits of terrace farming, such as stone retaining walls heating up in the sun during the day and then slowly releasing that warmth at night to keep sensitive roots from freezing, while also extending the growing season.

Today, modern farmers in the Andes are returning to the agricultural practices used thousands of years ago as a more practical and productive way to raise the most food with the least water, as well as reestablished traditional crops well-suited to the climate.

Tea plantations are famous for the designs they create on hillsides. (Photo: zhudifeng/iStock)

Tea farmers also take advantage of terrace farming. These beautiful green crops create incredible landscapes and can often be as much a tourist destination as they are a site for growing a sought-after consumer product.

Colorful terrace farms in the Yunnan Province, China. (Photo: isarescheewin/iStock)

Terrace farming is an ancient practice, and one that we are continually finding new evidence of in long-gone civilizations. As recently as 2013, researchers found that terrace farming was used near the desert city of Petra, in present-day Jordan, even earlier than previously thought—as long as 2,000 years ago. "The successful terrace farming of wheat, grapes and possibly olives, resulted in a vast, green, agricultural 'suburb' to Petra in an otherwise inhospitable, arid landscape," reports the University of Cincinnati.

Evidence of ancient terraces appears around Jerusalem, as well. One source explains, "Most farming on the terraced areas of the Judean Mountains was done without artificial irrigation. Farmers harvested grapes, olives, pomegranates and figs that had been watered solely by rainfall."

This is at the heart of terrace farming: making use of otherwise un-farmable land to create bountiful crops to support humans. Without this practice coming of age so long ago, civilizations around the world may have had a very, very different future.