The cultivation of the land is by far the most important industry in Burma. Only 9.4% of the people were classed as urban in the census of 1901, and a considerable proportion of this number were natives of India and not Burmese. Nearly two-thirds of the total population are directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture and kindred occupations. Throughout most of the villages in the rural tracts men, women and children all take part in the agricultural operations, although in riverine villages whole families often support themselves from the sale of petty commodities and eatables. The food of the people consists as a rule of boiled rice with salted fresh or dried fish, salt, sessamum-oil, chillies, onions, turmeric, boiled vegetables, and occasionally meat of some sort from elephant flesh down to smaller animals, fowls and almost everything except snakes, by way of condiment.
The staple crop of the province in both Upper and Lower Burma is rice. In Lower Burma it is overwhelmingly the largest crop; in Upper Burma it is grown wherever practicable. Throughout the whole of the moister parts of the province the agricultural season is the wet period of the south-west monsoon, lasting from the middle of May until November. In some parts of Lower Burma and in the dry districts of Upper Burma a hot season crop is also grown with the assistance of irrigation during the spring months. Oxen are used for ploughing the higher lands with light soil, and the heavier and stronger buffaloes for ploughing wet tracts and marshy lands. As rice has to be transplanted as well as sown and irrigated, it needs a considerable amount of labour expended on it; and the Burman has the reputation of being a somewhat indolent cultivator. The Karens and Shans who settle in the plains expend much more care in ploughing and weeding their crops. Other crops which are grown in the province, especially in Upper Burma, comprise maize, tilseed, sugar-cane, cotton, tobacco, wheat, millet, other food grains including pulse, condiments and spices, tea, barley, sago, linseed and other oil-seeds, various fibres, indigo and other dye crops, besides orchards and garden produce.
At the time of the British annexation of Burma there were some old irrigation systems in the Kyauksè and Minbu districts, which had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and these have now been renewed and extended. In addition to this the Mandalay Canal, 40 m. in length, with fourteen distributaries was opened in 1902; the Shwebo canal, 27 m. long, was opened in 1906, and a beginning had been made of two branches 29 and 20 m. in length, and of the Môn canal, begun in 1904, 53 m. in length. In all upwards of 300,000 acres are subject to irrigation under these schemes. On the whole the people of Burma are prosperous and contented. Taxes and land revenue are light; markets for the disposal of produce are constant and prices good; while fresh land is still available in most districts. Compared with the congested districts in the other provinces of India, with the exception of Assam, the lot of the Burman is decidedly enviable.