Rural and Environmental History Group

Rise of rural cooperatives in the Netherlands

Rise of rural co-operatives in the Netherlands from 1840-1920: From concept to practice

The rural co-operatives became one of the most important vehicles for the modernisation of the Dutch countryside and the empowerment of the farmers themselves. Their spreading at the end of the nineteenth century is really amazing. Between 1895-1920 co-operatives were established in almost every large village. Up to now, this process has mainly been explained in economic and institutional terms: the agricultural depression played a role, but it was only after the economic upturn subsequent to 1895 that agricultural co-operatives had a chance to fully develop. The co-operatives provided members, who were increasingly producing for the international market, with economic advantages, while simultaneously protecting them from this market. The unusual structure of these organisations is often put forward as the reason for their success.

Of course, economic conditions were significant and this study will not neglect them, but an economic explanation is too one-sided. Another problem is that recent historiography does not generally go back further in time than data on the establishment of the co-operatives, while history prior to then is scarcely considered. The co-operatives did not simply appear out of thin air. The mutual relationship between the rise of the various co-operatives has so far received very little attention.

The co-operative concept had been around nearly three quarters of a century before co-operatives were founded on a large scale and must have reached the Netherlands before 1850. In the decade directly afterwards, agriculture experienced a significant upsurge. Farmers increasingly began to grow their products for the international market. In Germany, the co-operative movement had already begun to develop in the countryside in the 1860s. Why did that not take place in the Netherlands until thirty years later? Therefore, the study cannot be limited to the period in which these organisations became successful, but must also focus on the period in which the co-operative concept grew popular, i.e. from 1850 – 1895.

The study is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the above period. What did people write about co-operatives? Who were the advocates and which social, political and religious groups did they belong to? There were supporters of the co-operative concept in the cities and in socialist circles from early on. When did the farmers and their leaders start discussing co-operative ideas? What role did the provincial agricultural associations play? How extensive was the government’s influence (1876 Co-operative Act; 1886 National Commission Staatscommissie)? Which co-operatives failed in the beginning period and why? This section will mainly be discussed from a national viewpoint (with an international comparison based on the literature).

The second part of the study will largely concentrate on the actual establishment and success of agricultural co-operatives from 1895 – 1920. What type and how many co-operatives were involved? What was their distribution? It is striking that one region enjoyed much greater success than another. How can these differences be explained? What was the significance of the rise of small farmers in the nineteenth century for the development of co-operatives? What was the role of farmers’ organisations being founded at the same time? This section will focus on the national and regional angle. Two regions will be compared: the eastern part of the province of Gelderland ‘Achterhoek’ where co-operatives were successful and the Gelderland river area where they enjoyed much less success. These regions readily lend themselves to comparison because of the way agriculture operated and the social structure in each area differed. In addition, agriculture developed more rapidly after 1880 in the Achterhoek than in the river area. Moreover, they were religiously mixed areas, enabling the effects of pillarisation to be easily examined.

The co-operatives themselves will not be the focus of the third part of the study, but their members in the two regions mentioned above. Who served on the executive boards? What were the relationships between the various boards? Which farmers joined co-operatives and which went to non-co-operative companies? Did the members have big or small holdings, were they Catholic or Protestant? Did Catholics always go to banks with a Catholic Board or did they also go to other credit cooperatives, if offered higher interest rates? What role did the co-operatives play in the local communities?

This research will put the rise of rural co-operatives in another light. Not only agrarian-economic, but also social, political and religious factors on a national and regional level will be analysed. Important for this research are the archives of co-operatives, farmers’ organisations and other institutes, as well as the writings of the advocates of the co-operative thought.