Danish cooperative movement

Danish cooperative movement

The Danish cooperative movement (Danish: Andelsbevægelsen) was a means of economical organization under leadership of consumer- or producer-controlled corporations, where each individual member owned a part of the corporation. The type of organization was especially used in the farming industry and in consumer organizations in Denmark from the 1790s to the 1960s. The members of the corporations sought to share the economic stress of producing or buying goods, and divided the eventual end-year financial surplus amongst them. The type of ownership rules varied greatly between individual corporations, as some divided the financial risk equally, while others gave more power to the most financially involved individuals.


Early history

About 90% of all farming soil in Denmark was cooperative from 1300, as the Black Death depopulated the rural parts of the country.[1] Then, the inhabitants of a Danish village would work together, forming Landsbyfællesskaber (village communes). To distribute land fairly between farmers, the land was normally distributed between all farmers in a village with each of them owning a strip of land on every field. Re-allocation of land took place if the size of the individual families changed strongly.[2] In this system, it was virtually impossible to only work individually, since the plots of land might have the full length of the field, but only be a few meters wide. A second characteristic was that all farms were located close together and near the church, with the result that fields far from the village were often poorly utilized.

The Enclosure Movement

This all changed in the enclosure movement between 1750 and 1800, which aimed to reunite fields and award them to one owner only.[3] Any farmer would normally be awarded a coherent piece of land and perhaps an additional piece of forest. In many villages, farmers were either forced or strongly encouraged to tear down their homes and rebuild them in the middle of their new fields with the intention that this would give them easier access to every part of the field, enabling them to utilize the land more effectively. These events are known as Landboreformerne (the agricultural reforms) or Udskiftningen (the parcellation), and were instigated at the initiative of the Danish Crown to raise production. For the next century, a standard village would be composed of a series of farms, many located a distance from each other, each family working for itself producing grain and raising a few animals.

After the Second War of Schleswig in 1864, two new movements hit Denmark. One was a successful attempt to reclaim moors in central and western Jutland for farming; mostly sandy land abandoned in the 14th century as a result of the Black Plague, but in many cases good for potatoes. This movement was initiated by Hedeselskabet (the Heath Association). Equally important was an influx to the world market of grain from the Russian provinces Ukraine and Poland, resulting in a sharp drop in price. This affected the income of many Danish farmers and the result was a change in production; from grain to dairy products and meat.[4] When a farmer couldn't sell his grain, he fed it to his cows and pigs.

Cooperative production

This change in production resulted in a need for dairies and slaughterhouses. The only way to pay for such massive investments was for a large group of farmers to share the cost and risk between them, thus creating the cooperative dairies and slaughterhouses. The new situation implied that farmers would buy cheap grain from Russia and feed it to their livestock, selling milk, butter, eggs and meat for a much higher price. This movement also resulted in the creation of both the Danish Bacon and Danish Lurpak Butter brands.

The combination of the Cooperative Movement and the switch away from the production of grain resulted in a great increase in wealth for the average Danish farmer and it became very important in the way Danish farmers perceived themselves. The system was also attempted in other places where Danes settled, for example in the Danish communities in the United States. Before World War I, Denmark gained a foothold on the Russian market, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 cost Danish industry dearly. Attempts to construct cooperative dairies in Russia played a large role in this policy, and a few were actually built there. The Russian Revolution destroyed this work, but new attempts were made in the Baltic States during the Interwar period. Attempts to export the system to Poland were considered in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to boost the exports of Danish machinery. Attempts to export this system were often linked with attempts to export the Danish system of secondary education for farmers; Højskolebevægelsen.

Second redistribution of land

Denmark saw a second redistribution of land, which effectively meant the creation of a number of small-scale farms (husmandsbrug).[5] The top stratum in a village was the priest and schoolmaster, then came the big landowners; "gårdmænd" or better. Next level of society was the craftsmen who normally owned a bit of land as well. The bottom of society was formed by "husmænd" and landless people.

The land acquired from the manors was paid for in cash by the government, and was used not to increase the existing farms in size, but to create new ones. The impact was most prominent in Southern Jutland (Northern Schleswig) which had been reunited with Denmark in 1920. Before the war in 1864, Northern Schleswig had a population density pretty much the same as the rest of the country; in 1920 it had virtually the same population as in 1860, while the population density of the rest of Denmark had doubled. Here the Danish government forced through an acquisition of large German Domänenpächter farms; splitting them up into smaller units, that was effectively a way to try to ensure that Danes didn't leave the poorly populated and poorly industrialized province.


In the 1950s, a joint stock company was formed out of a series of dairies, uniting into two rivals Mejeriselskaberne Danmark and Kløver who later merged to found MD Foods (now Arla Foods) which controls almost all of the Danish milk market. The Danish Crown meat processing company also owes its existence to the cooperative movement.

Co-op shops
The cooperative movement also resulted in a series of co-op stores known as Brugsen, which were under the administration of the The Danish Consumers Co-operative Society. The stores kept a large share of the Danish consumer goods market. It merged with the similar retail chains in Norway and Sweden in January 2002, to form Coop Norden.

Wind mills
The cooperative ownership model for wind mills was developed in Denmark. First for smaller wind mills, later for wind farms. One of the biggest copeartively owned windfarms are at Middelgrunden in Copenhagen and at the Samsø island.
See also: Wind power in Denmark, Wind turbine cooperative.

In the late 70's early 80's Collective lifestyle, including cooperative production was very popular. Some of these collectives still exist like Svanholm, which was started in 1978. Freetown Christiania was established in 1971. People living in these communities are often environment conscious, and join the Danish Ecovillage Network [1]. See also Global Ecovillage Network.

Living in co-housing groups with a common ground and common house is relatively common in Denmark. The common house is used for common eatings, common washing machines, meetings and fests. There are 3 types of co-housing groups:

  • One type, where the flats/houses are built by a national housing association and people are renting the flats. E.g., Lejerbo has 37,000 apartments [2]. In English this type of housing often referred as social co-housing.
  • Another where people are owning the flats/houses and the land and the loan together. In Danish they are called "andelsbolig" [3], and
  • Third type, where people own the common house and the land together, but they own their own family houses. E.g., AiH [4].


  • Steen Busck & Henning Poulsen, "Danmarks historie - i grundtræk", Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2002


  1. ^ Busck & Poulsen (ed.), pp. 80-81
  2. ^ E.g. if one family had many children, while another couple remained childless.
  3. ^ Ole Feldbæk, Denmark - History - The Long Peace and the Short War, 1720-1814 at Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
  4. ^ (Danish) Andelsmejerier at Arla Foods
  5. ^ A "husmand" literally means a man with a house in contrast to a "gårdmand", which is a man with a farm, implying that the latter could make enough from his farm to live off the land alone while the "husmand" would also have to work as a manual labourer, craftsman, or similar occupation to feed his family.

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