- The Land of Milk and Butter: How Elites Created the Modern Danish Dairy Industry by Markus Lampe and Paul Sharp
Johann Kohl, a prolific German travel writer and geographer, had a gift for clever predictions. In 1841, he foresaw cities that would grow concentrically and eventually spawn skyscrapers and underground shopping malls. A few years later, he envisaged Denmark, which he toured extensively in 1845, becoming “a land where not milk and honey, but milk and butter is flowing in abundance, and which may rival Ireland and Holland.” How right he would prove to be!1
The success of Danish agriculture, based on the export of high- quality produce and mediated through a bottom-up rural cooperative movement founded principally on excellent butter and pork, is a key element in the historiography of European agriculture. The strategy of specializing in the export of income-elastic items paid dividends for [End Page 156] several decades, until World War I and tariff protection presented new challenges. In this traditional version of events, Danish farmers rose to the top because they embraced cooperation more thoroughly than did their competitors; Irish farmers, for example, “failed” by comparison because they placed too much trust in alternative forms of rural organization. In this interpretation, the true defining dates are 1864, when Denmark lost Schlesvig-Holstein to Prussia, prompting Danish agriculture to seek alternative markets, and 1882, when farmers in the village of Hjedding in west Jutland established the first cooperative creamery, fast on the heels of the invention of the mechanical cream separator in 1878/9.
It is almost as if 1882 was Danish agriculture’s Year Zero. But already in the 1840s, Kohl detected a flexibility and dynamism in Danish agriculture, and foresaw the prospects offered by “more intimate connections with England” (1). Earlier progress is also a major theme of Lampe and Sharp’s scintillating exercise in historical revisionism. For Lampe and Sharp, the cooperative movement, particularly in dairying, was indeed important but is best seen as the culmination of a story that began much earlier. In the Lampe–Sharp view, the seeds of Danish agricultural success were sown, even if only symbolically, a century or so earlier by Count Adam Gottlob von Moltke, a nobleman originally from Mecklenburg, on an estate named Sofiendal (after his wife) in the 1760s. Moltke, an enthusiast for what the Physiocrats dubbed la grande culture, practiced a farming system that combined two key components— Koppelwirtschaft (a system of cultivation akin to what Arthur Young was recommending to English capitalist farmers around the same time) and hollaenderi (an improved system of estate dairying). The former was imported from Holstein, a German-speaking region then ruled by the Danish king, while the latter was modeled on Dutch practice. Elements of both were gradually adapted to farming at large, with some nudging by elites. A steady, export-led growth in output and productivity followed, in which dairying played an important part.
One of the most intriguing maps in the book illustrates the claim, backed up by econometric work, that the earliest cooperative dairies were more likely to be found in areas containing a hollaenderi a century earlier (83). Hence, the argument is not that cooperatives did not matter but that the trickle-down effects of earlier choices made their success more likely. It is likely no coincidence that salt butter produced by a six-cow farmer from Hjedding won second prize at the International Agricultural Exhibition in London in 1879.2 Farmers like him, hard- working and well-educated, formed the backbone of the cooperative movement. They capitalized on earlier gains. Milk yields almost doubled between 1880 and 1910 and, thanks to the centrifugal separator, the milk-to-butter ratio fell by 15 percent over roughly the same period. [End Page 157]
Milk and Butter is a truly interdisciplinary work, in the best sense. It combines archival sources, a comparative perspective, economic theory, and simple econometric estimation in making its case. Its narrative is informed by applied...