Agriculture and livestock provide a living for approximately 90 percent of the population. However, due to the climatic variations in rainfall and because there are few permanent watercourses, irrigation is limited to only 15,000 hectares (37,067 acres) of the nation's total 3.27 million hectares (8.1 million acres). Soil quality varies, though it is generally better in the southwest of the country. Cotton, shea nuts, millet, and sorghum are grown in the central Mossi plateau. Livestock is the main source of livelihood in the north, with 18 million head and providing around 15 percent of exports in 1998.
The lack of advanced technology also hinders farming in a poor environment. Only 36 percent of farmers have links with extension services, and only 30 percent own either a plough or traction animals. Fertilizer is used almost exclusively on cash crops . Land holdings are also very small. An extended household may farm around 9.6 hectares (24 acres) in total, but plot sizes are small, with each plot averaging only 0.4 hectares (1 acre). This means that Burkina Faso can easily fall below self-sufficiency in food production, especially in the north where the rains may come late or there may be a drought.
The main staple crops are rain-fed millet and sorghum. Maize is grown in increasing amounts, however, and vegetables are also produced in significant quantities. Attempts to boost rice production (for example, through public irrigation) doubled its production to 94,000 metric tons in 2000. The main export, cotton, has seen a revival in recent years, reaching a high of 338,000 metric tons in the 1997-98 season. It has since fallen in both the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons due to farmers' debt repayments, a depressed world market, and poor weather.
Timber production is negligible, although forest and woodland cover some 50 percent of Burkina Faso. Much deforestation has taken place as a result of firewood collection and has only been partially offset by campaigns to promote tree planting. In 1991 the government launched a long-term management program to maintain the environment.
The fish catch of 6,000 to 7,000 metric tons per year, taken from rivers, dams, and ponds, is much lower than the estimated consumed figure of 13,000 metric tons. Inland fish farms are being developed.