This book presents a radical retelling of this story, placing (largely German-speaking) landed elites—rather than the Danish peasantry—at center stage. After acquiring estates in Denmark, these elites imported and adapted new practices from outside the kingdom, thus embarking on an ambitious program of agricultural reform and sparking a chain of events that eventually led to the emergence of Denmark’s famous peasant cooperatives in 1882. A Land of Milk and Butter presents a new interpretation of the origin of these cooperatives with striking implications for developing countries today.
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Je inniger die Verbindungen mit England werden und je mehr der Markt dieses Artikels [Butter] sich erweitert, am Ende im ganzen schleswig-holsteinisch-dänischen Insel- und Küstengebiete ein Land erzeugen werden, in dem, wo nicht Milch und Honig, doch Milch und Butter im Ueberfluß fließen, und das sich als solches Irland und Holland rivalisirend an die Seite stellen kann.
The more intimate connections with England become, and the more the market for this article [butter] expands, a land will be created throughout Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark ... where not milk and honey, but milk and butter is flowing in abundance, and which may rival Ireland and Holland.
— Johann G. Kohl, Reisen in Dänemark und den Herzogthümern Schleswig und Holstein
When Senator Bernie Sanders declared in the 2016 American presidential primaries "We should look at countries like Denmark," his words started a debate that, together with, for example, the recent success of Danish TV shows, media discussions of the concept of hygge, and Denmark's frequent status as the world's "happiest country," served to imprint that small country in the north of Europe on the consciousness of people around the world. For the economic historian Denmark also presents an interesting story, one illustrated by figure 1.1, which maps the 1,163 cooperatives that had spread across the country by 1909 and that enabled the successful management of the competitive pressures of the first wave of economic globalization in a way that distinguished Denmark from most of continental Europe.
Given that the majority of these cooperatives were established within a decade in the 1880s and early 1890s — and that they were all relatively sophisticated and highly capital-intensive factories using steam-powered machinery to produce butter in small rural villages — this rapid spread is remarkable. Not surprisingly, therefore, especially when seen from abroad, the economic history of Denmark seems almost in total to be the story of the rise of the cooperative movement. In fact, that agricultural cooperation explains much of Denmark's economic modernization seems to be pretty much everything one needs to know about this country from the perspective of an international textbook, apart perhaps from the agrarian reforms it underwent in the 1780s (which enabled farmers to create the cooperatives), or that it sent emigrants to the United States (some of them to set up dairy cooperatives) or that it later became a major user and exporter of wind power. And since this narrative is based on rather unlikely heroes for a modernization process — medium-sized farmers and smallholders living in the countryside — it has attracted wide attention as a reference for agricultural modernization, economic development, the origins of capitalism, change management, and even nation building (Kindleberger 1951; Johnston and Mellor 1961; preface by Jawaharlal Nehru in P. Manniche 1969; Senghaas 1986, chs. 2–5; Burnes 2009, 26–27; Trampusch and Spies 2014).
Likewise, the idea of a democratic and cooperative countryside is very much part of conventional Danish economic and national history. Often, this is seen as a reflection of a new national consciousness after the traumatic loss of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia in the Second Schleswig War (1864). Thus, when the Federation of Danish Cooperatives celebrated its centenary in 1999, the Danish prime minister called the cooperative movement "part of the history of the country of Denmark, which won inwardly what we lost outwardly after the catastrophe in 1864" (quoted in Mordhorst 2014, 121). Indeed, in prior research and many of the wider narratives about modern Denmark within the country and in terms of its perception by outsiders, the invention of the dairy cooperative by some Jutland farmers in 1882 — and some of the events immediately preceding it — has been presented as a critical juncture in the development of modern Denmark.
When we first encountered this story, as foreigners entering Denmark and its academic world, we fully embraced it, but we soon came to ask ourselves, how was this possible? Where did Denmark's cooperatives come from so suddenly, and why did they spread so quickly? We found some answers, mainly in the works of economists and economic historians, but, as will be clear from the discussion of this literature below, research has exhibited a tendency to focus on the immediate determinants of cooperation rather than seeking to understand the institutional and technological bedrock upon which they stood. Clearly, the technology, the educational and scientific establishments, and not least the cows, all of which were to be crucial for the cooperatives, did not spring up overnight in the 1880s. Thus, looking for deeper historical answers led us on a journey that was to stretch back more than a century before the first cooperative. And the answers we present in this book suggest a rather different narrative than the above: a narrative less about the Danish peasantry and cooperatives and more focused on the role of (often German-speaking) elites who moved into Denmark, established themselves on traditional landed estates, and implemented a program of enlightened reform, which we argue laid the foundation for the later success of Danish agriculture. This interpretation does not question the importance of the cooperatives for Danish development, but it does help to explain the rapidity with which they spread throughout the countryside, and the success they enjoyed. The end result of our work might therefore seem surprising at first glance, since this is a book about Danish dairying that treats the cooperatives only very late (in chapter 9) and rather briefly. In fact, however, as the quote above from the famous German travel writer, Johann Georg Kohl, makes clear, already in the 1840s it was possible to discern the beginnings of what would become one of the backbones of Danish success — supplying agricultural products to the rapidly growing and industrializing English market — beginnings that preceded the creation of the first cooperative creamery by nearly four decades.
As our work progressed we soon noted that, of course, there had been dairying in Denmark before 1880 and that there were already established modernized practices; a good reputation in distant markets; networks of merchants, dairy tenants, administrators (enlightened farmers) and scientists; and even specialized education programs, mostly within a circle of owners of landed estates organized around the Danish Royal Agricultural Society (Landhusholdningsselskab). Since at least the 1760s, following models from Holstein, a German duchy ruled by the Danish monarch in personal union until 1864, this network had evolved into a cluster of dairy entrepreneurs within the framework of the large landed estates. In the agricultural system of these estates, a new Holstein cultivation process was implemented in which milch cows would be rented out to specialist tenants, who took care of them and the marketing of their produce. The tenants made use of the estates' pasturelands, temporary pasture in the crop rotation, and fallows for grazing and haymaking, while the cows provided manure and stable tenancy fees to the estate economy. The new methods benefited estates much more than peasant farmers, since they were subject to rather high minimum optimal sizes of production units due to the need for a specialist manager, the construction of specialized hygienic facilities, and a larger production to obtain a better price. Better-quality herds, larger output volume, and continuous contact with traders constituted additional advantages of estates. For peasant farmers, such advantages were traditionally impossible, since constant production, the hiring of specialists, and the construction of specialized facilities were not feasible for managers of smaller herds (Olsen 1957, 140–44).
This mixed farming model spread all over Denmark, and individual dairy tenants actually benefited from this spread, since it allowed for more regular and specialized market connections, gave access to a larger market beyond that within and immediately adjacent to Denmark (such as Hamburg and Norway), and created a reputation for Holstein and Danish export butter. Reputation and wider markets served to stabilize prices and diversify demand. Thus, this early cluster of dairy producers (and the merchants buying and marketing their produce) played a role in the rise of estate dairying similar to that played by cooperatives for peasant milk producers one hundred years later. The cooperatives in fact adopted the model of estate dairies on a (milk-producer-wise) smaller scale, allowing peasants to benefit from advances in modern techniques and more regular distribution channels for produce. As can be seen in figure 1.2, this led to a pronounced shift in theoutput structure of Danish agriculture from grain-based to animal-based production from at least the 1850s.
Recent studies in economics and political science have expressed conflicting views on the role of large landowners in economic development, as we will describe below, but in the case of Denmark we observe that a relatively strong central government stripped local elites of much of their power (and local government responsibilities) and launched agrarian reforms in which peasants obtained rather secure property rights (and became farmers) as well as relatively uniform access to education and other basic public goods. Large landowners then concentrated on taking part in central government or in becoming private entrepreneurs of professionally managed landed estates (cf. Kjærgaard 1994, ch. 8). Many chose the latter and used their resources to adopt modern methods that in the long run would have positive, although not necessarily intended, spillover effects on the wider agricultural population. These spillover effects emerged mostly because merchants and, to a certain degree, emerging well-to-do farmers found markets abroad for the produce of these professionalized estates and sought an additional supply of high-quality produce. They looked first to other large estates but then applied their best practices to the conditions of peasant production, a strategy that eventually led — again mostly or wholly unintentionally — to the rise of the cooperative movement.
In this process, we also observe a remarkable capacity of Danish elites in town and country to absorb and adapt foreign practices — or to integrate foreign-born innovators into their circles — although not always without tensions. Nevertheless, as we will see, a salient number of the main agricultural innovators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were from northern Germany and moved to Denmark to reap the advantages of backwardness by introducing methods they had known and often practiced in their home country. This transfer of ideas and practices is most evident in the early name for estate dairies in Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, hollænderier, because the creators of the initial model had been immigrants from the Netherlands, where high-quality dairying had emerged already in the Middle Ages. But it is also reflected in the import and adaptation of crop-rotation systems, bookkeeping practices, and the general ideas of the Enlightenment and enlightened farming, as well as in the increasing orientation toward the virtually unlimited demand of foreign markets that opened up as mercantilism was dismantled in most places after the Napoleonic Wars.
Therefore, the present book is both a revision of the roots of Danish economic development and a rather peculiar case study of the role agriculture can play in economic development. Methodologically, as is common in case studies (Gerring 2004), we mostly rely on changes within Denmark over time to provide an in-depth analytic narrative of what happened there. In this, we sometimes take advantage of variation within the country — for example, in the spread of the Holstein system (chapter 4); sometimes we also discuss similar or adjacent places (especially the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig but also the Netherlands, Ireland, Prussia, and Sweden) and the main market for Danish exports, Great Britain. But our study is and remains most fundamentally a study of Denmark, not a comparative study of agricultural development or the dairy industry. Since Denmark has come to be something of a paradigmatic case in this respect, we believe that our in-depth revision is both necessary for understanding this particular case and for conceptualizing or reconceptualizing the conditions and mechanisms that underlie successful transformations in the agricultural sector. Then, based on this, comparisons can be made with other countries and paths — an analogy would be the fruitful stimulation that successive examinations of the British industrial revolution and its causes and consequences have had for our understanding of the causes and effects of modern economic growth. And much like successive reexaminations of the industrial revolution stand in close contact and build on advances in the economics of growth and development, our study only makes sense if we contextualize it within the main streams of economics and sociology that have investigated the role of agriculture in development and the conditions for successful agricultural development.
By bringing the traditionally dominant dairy producers — the large landed estates — back into the story, we therefore not only extend the existing story by more than one hundred years backward in time but also widen the picture. This widening contributes to two strands of literature that intersect only occasionally in the field of economic development: one focusing on the role of elites in development and another examining the role of agriculture in the transition to modern economic growth. Both strands ask how industrialization is brought about most effectively and thus how to escape — from a theoretical point of view — a traditional and stagnating sector like agriculture.
At the intersection of both literatures, the concentration of resources and power in the hands of traditional rural elites is often seen as leading to underinvestment in human capital and public goods such as education or health infrastructure and a lack of institutional modernization and political stability in general (Engerman and Sokoloff 2002; Lizzeri and Persico 2004; Banerjee and Iyer 2005; Galor, Moav, and Vollrath 2009; Acemoglu and Robinson 2012; Baten and Juif 2014; Cinnirella and Hornung 2016). Such negative effects would also manifest themselves in a reduced likelihood that agricultural producer cooperatives would emerge in unequal and socially fractionalized economies (Fernández 2014; O'Rourke 2007).
Clearly, there are plenty of examples of countries in which elites did not necessarily aid development in the countryside, and the spillovers we suggest above did not occur. A thorough understanding of how and why these experiences differed from the Danish case is clearly beyond the scope of the present work, since it would require detailed analyses of the developments in other countries. Nevertheless, we can discern some limiting factors, whose absence in Denmark was critical to the path described here. The first might be the inability or unwillingness of elites to invest. Elites in some countries might simply not have developed an interest in the marketing of agricultural surpluses because no suitable outlet for surpluses existed; this surely mattered to the timing of the Danish story as well. Economic elites might also have lacked capital or clearly defined property rights in relation to ruling political elites and thus lacked means and incentives to invest. A second limiting factor would have been the inability of peasants to adapt and benefit from knowledge and practices developed by elites, due to the same reasons mentioned above: capital constraints like lack of access to land or credit (e.g., because of lack of collateral or insufficient monetization) and inadequate individual property rights (including communal decision making on cultivation schemes and the limitations to the use of one's physical resources inherent in the need to perform unfree labor). In addition, the technologies used by elites might not have been reproducible at the peasant level; peasants might rationally have decided not to engage in commercialized farming if their subsistence was at constant risk; or elites might have actively blocked peasants from commercial contacts (whether directly or through restrictions on education) or prohibited the adoption of new technologies. In addition, some of these factors might have led to tensions and occasional violent confrontations between elites and the general agricultural population, increasing the social distance between them and thus the costs of information transmission and imitation. The latter might be described as a lack of "social capital" (Putnam 1995, 2001). One might think of India and many other developing countries, as well as parts of Spain and southern Italy, as examples of the first set of factors, while the second set has affected such countries as East Elbian Prussia and Russia (at least until 1906). Ireland, to which we will return repeatedly throughout the book, provides an example of a situation where conflict increases the weight of the second set of factors.(Continues…)
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Glossary of Weights and Measures
2 The Economic and Political Context for Danish Agricultural Development, ca. 1660–1850
3 The Agricultural Reforms, 1750s–1800s
4 The Spread of the Holstein System
5 From Bullshit to Butter: Accounting and Production Decisions
6 Science, Innovation, and the Dissemination of Knowledge
7 How the Danes Discovered Britain
8 Industrial and Trade Policy
9 The Spread of Modern Dairying beyond the Estates: The Rise of the Cooperatives
10 Agriculture, Industry, and Modern Economic Growth in Denmark
11 Lessons from the Danish Agricultural Revolution for Developing Countries