Agriculture and animal husbandry employs 85 percent of the country's workforce but only contributes 44 percent to the GDP. While cotton, cattle, and gum arabic provide most of Chad's export revenue, farmers also produce several subsistence crops for domestic consumption.
Farming methods are traditionally simple, and irrigation and mechanical equipment are rarely used. Farmers work their fields by hand or use cattle to till the soil. Competition for land between farmers and cattle-herders has caused conflicts in rural areas.
Cotton employs an estimated 2.5 million Chadians and provides half of Chad's export revenue. Over the past decade, production of raw cotton has varied between 94,000 tons and 260,000 tons. Production levels depend primarily on variations in annual rainfall, and the cotton sector has been affected by fluctuations in world prices. During the 1980s, low cotton prices caused the state cotton company, Cotontchad, to lose money for several years until it modernized its ginning factories and prices recovered. In addition to ginned cotton, Cotontchad produces oil and soap from cottonseed.
Chad's second leading export is cattle, most of which travel overland to Nigeria. Cattle-herders lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, migrating north during the rainy season and traveling south in search of green pastures during the dry season. These migrations often bring them into conflict with farmers when cattle damage crops. Cattle-herders travel in small groups but are well armed to defend against hostile farmers. Camels, donkeys, goats, and sheep are also farmed, primarily for domestic use or consumption. These animals also represent savings and a measure of wealth in rural areas where money is scarce.
The country's main subsistence crops include grains, oilseeds, tubers, and several leafy vegetables (legumes). Millet and sorghum are the major staples of the local diet. These grains are also widely used to produce bili-bili and arghi, 2 popular alcoholic beverages. Chad produces between 600,000 and 1,100,000 tons of grain per year, most of which is consumed locally. Peanuts, groundnuts, and sesame are Chad's principal oil seeds and are also primarily for local consumption. Farmers grow several tubers, including manioc and sweet potatoes.
In the 1990s, gum arabic production soared, and Chad solidified its position as the world's second largest producer of this commodity. Chadian gum arabic production rose from fewer than 6,000 tons in the early 1990s to approximately 18,000 tons in 2000. Gum arabic is exported to Europe, the United States, and other industrialized nations, where it is used in soft drinks, pharmaceuticals, and many other products. Chadian gum is tapped by small-scale harvesters from wild acacia trees throughout the semi-arid Sahel region.