75th Anniversary: 12) Engaging in Agri-Environmental Cooperativism

The Netherlands witnessed in the 1990s the emergence of novel expressions of collective action among farmers. Building upon a rich tradition of agricultural cooperativism as well as outcomes of regional farming style research (see blog 10), these novel forms of collective action aimed initially especially for more farmer-friendly agri-environmental and nature policy measures.

Sometimes their emergence is closely interwoven with resistance against public policy initiatives that anticipated the complete abandoning of farming from areas with high nature values. The latter as part of an emerging spatial planning philosophy that aspired to concentrate agricultural activity in areas with most favourable ecological conditions, whereas in so-called less favourable rural areas preservation of nature values would get priority by completely blocking agricultural development prospects and out-buying of farmers. In other regions, agri-environmental cooperatives opposed primarily the shortcomings of overly generic agri-environmental policy measures. In short, agri-environmental cooperatives did emerge first and foremost as expressions of resistance against – in farmers’ eyes- unfavourable policy interventions.

As farmer-led counter-movements and what rural governance scholars framed as ‘scale-jumping’, these new expressions of cooperativism increasingly succeeded to mobilize policy support at different levels and to renegotiate farming futures by creating extra space for more tailor-made and stimulating agri-environmental measures. Maybe not surprisingly, such agri-environmental cooperatives emerged particularly in regions that struggled mostly with agricultural modernisation logics (see e.g. www.waterlandendijken.nl; www.noardlikefryskewalden.nl). Most successful ones succeeded to align self-interest with wider agricultural, rural and food policy concerns, e.g. by gradually incorporating and /or initiating other rural development activities as green care or green education, short value chain development, sustainable energy production or the promotion of rural tourism and leisure.

Their key features, drivers, prospects, challenges and wider societal impact have been studied by our RSO group within various national and European research projects and subject of various publications (www.COFAMI.org; https://edepot.wur.nl/358298; doi.org/10.1016/S1573-5214(03)80024-6). In general, their outcomes point at positive impacts from various theoretical angles as policy-practice interfaces, territory-based collaboration, territorial capital assets building, rural web formation and regional rural-urban synergies. As such agri-environmental cooperatives might have developed into meaningful representatives of wider rural interests, as also manifested in participation in policy pilots that further explore their self-governance potential within Europe’s Farm to Fork and wider greening aspirations. In sum, these are intriguing rural change actors that continue to fully deserve rural scholarly attention and support. Be it as disruptive or transformative forces, as part of transition theory inspired approaches, or promising arrangements within multi-level governance theorizing.