In the eighteenth century, Denmark was an entirely agrarian society dominated by large estates owned by a small landowning elite. Most land was farmed by small and medium-sized peasants who did now own their farms but held them as copyhold (in Danish fæste) in exchange for both rents and labour service to the lord of the manor. Almost all farming was conducted in open fields regulated by the village community under the jurisdiction of the estate.
Following the agrarian reforms in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, almost all farms had been enclosed, resulting in the dissolution of the open field system and the village community. At the same time, the estate system had been dismantled as labour service was abolished, and peasants increasingly became owner-occupiers or “self-owners” (in Danish selvejere).
The Danish self-owner farmers of the nineteenth century were no longer embedded in village communities of the old kind but related to one another rather more loosely within the new parish culture.
By the end of the nineteenth century, when the international crisis hit Denmark and corn prices plummeted, these increasingly individualized farmers nevertheless started to organize cooperatively. In 1882 the first Danish cooperative dairy was established in south-western Jutland. By 1900 over 1000 cooperative dairies covered the entire country. By 1890 around a third of all milk-producing farmers had joined a cooperative, and in 1901 three thirds of all dairies were cooperatives. A movement with a huge impact on Danish society and economic development had been born in less than 20 years.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the farmer cooperatives made up the core of a wider rural society and culture, including a vast organizational network. The social basis of this well-organized culture was the medium-sized farm, which had persisted since the sixteenth century. Still, in 1960, almost 200.000 such farms existed and remained the predominant agricultural unit of the period.
However, the following decades saw the rapid decline of the small and medium-sized self-owner farms. Technological development, agricultural policy, and international economic pressures all contributed to the fast disintegration of rural culture as people moved into the cities taking jobs in the industrial and service sectors. Today around 7500 full-time farms exist, and the 1200 cooperatives dairies existing in 1960 have been reduced to a handful of global companies.
While the former rural culture, its organizational network, and locally rooted cooperative movement no longer exist, agriculture continues to occupy an important place in Danish society and national self-understanding. Some of the most important Danish companies are related to the agricultural and food-producing sectors. New local initiatives such as cooperative and community farming are gaining momentum, and the importance of farmers in tackling the ecological and climate crises is increasingly becoming public knowledge.
The persistence of the middle-sized farms between 1500 and 1960, the great and sudden rupture of the agrarian reforms, the rapid making of a vast cooperative movement, and a well-organized rural culture all contribute to the fascinating story of Danish agriculture and farmers. And just as fascinating is the sudden structural transformation of agriculture in the latter part of the twentieth century, constituting a complete revolution in the way of life of a large part of the population.
See also my virtual tour of Gammel Estrup, the Danish Manor and Estate Museum, in which I talk about Danish agrarian society between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (in Danish) -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8UAp0iIMlA
My research on Danish agriculture and farmers focuses on the long history between 1800 and today. I have especially done research on the making of the cooperative dairies in the 1880s and 1890s. More recently, I have focused on the complete transformation of agriculture and the disintegration of rural culture in the latter part of the twentieth century.
I have formerly presented a paper on the Danish farmer cooperatives at the Workshop: “Agrarian Politics in Sweden and Northern Europe, c. 1850–1950”, Department of Economic History, School of Economics and Management, Lund University.
I have a forthcoming publication on the history of the Danish farmer cooperatives and agrarian corporatism between the late nineteenth century and today co-written with associate professor Mads Mordhorst (CBS). The publication is an outcome of the research project “Getting to Norden: Comparisons of associative and corporatist governance”, Center for Civil Society Studies, Copenhagen Business School, Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy.
I am currently cowriting a paper on how capitalism developed in Danish agriculture between 1800 and today with Markus Christian Hansen, PhD fellow at Lund University. We plan to present the paper on conferences in the near future.