Published by EH.Net (May 2020)

Markus Lampe and Paul Sharp, A Land of Milk and Butter: How Elites Created the Modern Danish Dairy Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. x + 273 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-54950-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anthony Webster, Department of Humanities, Northumbria University.


This collaboratively authored work by Markus Lampe (Vienna University of Economics and Business) and Paul Sharp (University of Southern Denmark) builds upon an impressive body of work already undertaken by the authors on the role of dairying in the modern economic history of Denmark. The volume offers a comprehensive review of Denmark’s rise as an agricultural economy from the eighteenth century, stressing that the country’s success — especially as a dairy producer — was not the product of the “co-operative revolution” of the late nineteenth century, but rather of a long and gradual process in which the country’s landed, intellectual and political elites implemented land reforms, new technologies, educational and trading policies, which enabled Denmark to emerge as a major exporter of butter after 1850. They show that the nature of land reform enabled the emergence of a “middle ranking” class of farmers, who were able to gradually absorb and implement innovations first pioneered by wealthy estate owners, and eventually turn them spectacularly to their own advantage, in part through their adoption of the co-operative model. The result was a unique story of national economic development in which agriculture was not merely a “launch pad” for industry development, which would soon outstrip it in terms of resources, employment, political importance and contribution to GDP, but rather a continuously major contributor in its own right. What resulted was a quite uniquely balanced model of economic development based on agriculture as well as modern industrial growth. Of central importance to their argument is the importance of both technological development (such as the separator of the late 1870s) and a vibrant press and educational system, which facilitated the “top down” dissemination of the latest ideas. They argue that the success of co-operative farming owed more to these technological breakthroughs than any inherent superiority of the co-operative institutional model, and they see co-operation as the product of long-term agricultural growth and success, rather than its cause. In fact, they do tend to the view that co-operatives may have been an irrelevance to the success story — that the success of Danish agricultural development would have been achieved regardless of the co-operative movement in the dairy industry.

A great strength of the book is its intense and thorough use of econometric analysis, which, combined with exhaustive scrutiny of primary sources from individual estates and the agricultural press, offers what is undoubtedly a convincing emphasis on the vital importance of pre-1850 developments in the long-term development of the Danish economy. The argument that Denmark underwent a quite exceptional process of balanced economic development is also very persuasive, as is the conclusion that this pattern would be hard if not impossible to replicate elsewhere, given the unique conditions which prevailed in Denmark.

The book is less sure footed in its analysis of the significance of the co-operative movement. The argument that without the preceding “top-down” development of agriculture, the social, knowledge and technological basis for co-operative development would not have existed is undoubtedly true. But this is hardly an original point. Few modern historians of co-operatives would claim that these organizations emerge from a historical vacuum; they are always conditioned by the history and context in which they emerge — this is why no two nations display the same configuration of co-operative development. Moreover, the stress on econometric analysis, generally such a strength in this book, becomes a weakness in assessing the significance of Danish co-operative development. For as every co-operative historian knows, co-operatives are as much about developing new social and political cultures, which stress sharing and greater social solidarity, as they are about generating wealth, crucial though that may be. Peter Gurney’s ground-breaking work on the development of culture, social relations, and politics in the British consumer co-operative movement between 1870 and 1930 reveals much about how the movement shaped social behavior and political attitudes, irrespective of business developments. Such an analysis is absent here, which though not a weakness, becomes so when the authors try to draw conclusions about the significance of Danish co-operation based purely on economic performance. Even in terms of the latter, more consideration is needed of the extent to which the co-operative model in agriculture facilitated the co-operative members securing a greater share of the wealth generated by the industry. Similarly, the tendency to dismiss Irish agricultural co-operatives as something of a failure overlooks recent work by historians such as Patrick Doyle, which stresses the role of co-operatives in shaping a new sense of Irish national identity. Again, this begs the question of how Danish co-operatives perhaps contributed to modern Danish attributes of social solidarity. There is also limited awareness of Danish co-operative commercial relations with overseas co-operative movements. The considerable importance from the 1880s of trade with the Co-operative Wholesale Societies of England and Scotland is one such notable omission, especially in the chapter on trade with the UK.

That said this is an excellent contribution to the literatures on Denmark and economic development. It is thoroughly researched, professionally written and clear in its contribution to knowledge. While some of its conclusions on the significance of the Danish co-operative creameries are arguably evidence of over-reach, and the limitations of a heavy stress on econometric analysis, this is nevertheless a very important book which will undoubtedly inform future research on economic development, Danish history and the unique co-operative movement in that country.


Anthony Webster is the co-author (with John Wilson and Rachael Vorberg-Rugh) of Building Co-operation: A Business History of the Co-operative Group, 1863 to 2013 (Oxford University Press October 2013) and author of Co-operation and Globalisation: The British Co-operative Wholesales, the Co-operative Group and the World since 1863 (Routledge, 2019).

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