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 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 across the globe.

Terraced Paddy Field in Mae-Jam Village , Chaing mai Province
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 for a big crop is hard to find. The smarter way is to use terrace farming. What at first looks like unusable land for rice becomes step after step of perfect rice fields.

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

The use of terraces help 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. By using terraces, a hillside can remain productive for as long as the soil is properly cared for and the terraces maintained.

In fact, the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras are thought to be up to 2,000 years old, were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and are known as the eighth wonder of the world.
Beautiful terraced rice fields of Bali, Indonesia
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.
Terrace farming is also ideal for vineyards and orchards, such as the vineyards in Serralunga d'Alba, Piemonte, Italy. (Photo: M^3/Wikipedia)

Areas in the Mediterranean use terrace farming for vineyards and orchards of olive and cork. Lining hillsides and the steep slopes leading down to the coast are terraced areas transformed into productive agricultural land for some of the favorite foods (and wines!) to come from the region.

Terrace farms line the coastal hillside of the Lavaux region.
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.
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)

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 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."

Today, modern farmers are returning to the terrace farming practices used thousands of years ago as a more practical and productive way to raise the most food with the least water.

Tea plantations are famous for the designs they create on hillsides.
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.
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 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. 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.