Not all arable land in Greece was yet under cultivation in the archaic period. Farms appear to have been small, cohesive units, concentrated near settlements. They were highly diversified, growing a wide variety of crops simultaneously, in order to make consistent use of human resources throughout the year and to ensure that the failure of any one crop was not too much of a disaster. Crop rotation was practiced, with fields left fallow every other year. Though wheat was preferred, in some parts of Greece barley was the staple grain; where wheat was grown it was durum rather than bread wheat. Alongside these, farmers cultivated pulses, vines, olives, fruit, and vegetables. Olives and grapes, which could be turned into oil and wine respectively, served as cash crops; farmers who cultivated land near population centres could also sell soft fruits and leafy vegetables at market.
Livestock were of secondary importance. Sheep and goats, in particular, were kept for meat, milk, wool, and fertiliser, but they were difficult to sustain and large herds were a sign of exceptional wealth. A team of oxen could increase agricultural output significantly but were expensive to maintain. As they had in the Dark Ages, the wealthiest members of Greek society could own large herds of cattle.
This pattern had probably developed before the beginning of the period and remained relatively consistent throughout it. The idea that it was preceded by a period of pastoralism and that agriculture only became dominant in the course of the archaic period is not supported by the archaeological or literary evidence. No technological innovations in agriculture appear to have occurred, except possibly the increased use of iron tools and more intensive use of manure.
The main source for the practice of agriculture in the period is Hesiod’s Works and Days, which gives the impression of very small subsistence holdings in which the owner performed most of the labour personally; close reading reveals that much of the produce is to be sold for profit, much of the work to be performed by slaves (douloi or dmoes), and much of the owner’s time to be spent away from the farm. Slaves’ labour was supplemented by labourers who worked for a wage, as sharecroppers (called hektemoroi at Athens), or to pay off debts; this practice seems to have increased in the eighth century as the growth of the population increased the number of workers available, and intensified in the seventh century with the development of legally enforced debts and the status of the labourers increasingly becoming a source of social strife.