This article investigates the links between market-oriented activities and subsistence production among peasant farmers in the Thyolo and Mzimba districts in Malawi from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. The two districts were chosen because of their differences in terms of land-labor ratios, quality of soils, and structure of market engagement. Exploring the different paths of agrarian change in these two districts demonstrates that they were dependent on the structure of market engagement and its effects on the supply and flexibility of labor. African agricultural history is best understood when agricultural systems are viewed in connection to the overall economic activities of rural households. More simply put, the dynamics of agrarian change in rural Africa cannot be understood without linking such changes to the wider economy and their impact on local labor processes.