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Natural Resource Governance around the World

DENMARK. A pioneer for small farmers in Western Europe

Documents of reference

SERVOLIN, Claude. L’agriculture moderne. Editions du Seuil. Paris, February 1989. 318 p.

Interview with Claude Servolin. M. Merlet 2001.

The inception of the modern agricultural policy of capitalist European countries is found in mid-18th century Denmark under the aegis of an absolute monarchy and supported by bourgeois merchants. Danish agriculture at this time was dominated by feudal landowners who ran an extremely oppressive system of serfdom. The rudimentary method of traditional collective crop rotation over a three year cycle, heavy labour, and burdensome taxes kept the peasants in a state of misery. « Upon the initiative of the royal administration, investigations into agriculture were performed, since the reform movement included debates concerning the type of agriculture that should be practised to restore the country’s prosperity « .

There was a consensus on the need to stop collective crop rotation, the enclosure of common land and the grouping of fields. However, two schools of thought clashed: the proponents of large farms like in England, which would have resulted in clearing the land of most of the rural population, and the supporters of a populous and wealthy peasantry declaring that « such a peasantry, provided that it was given the means, was perfectly capable of implementing the English technical innovations, with technical and economic efficiency at least equal to that of aristocratic country gentlemen. It was not until after violent political struggle that the latter standpoint won at the very end of the 18th century. »

C. Servolin underlines the importance of these decisions: « With truly admirable realism of which few examples exist in history, the enlightened faction of the Danish elite, supported by the King and his progressive administration, was able to both identify the remarkable potential for the development of small farms and identify all the obstacles that required eliminating before this potential could come to fruition. The peasants were emancipated by a number of legislative measures in only a few years. »

  • Starting in 1786, feudal obligations were abolished and replaced by the practice of paying a fixed rent for land in cash. A modern system of land tenancy was imposed that defined the rights and obligations of both farmer and owner.

  • In 1788, a public bank was founded to help the peasants become landowners by granting them long-term loans at low interest rates. In 1820, Danish farmers already owned nearly half of the land they cultivated, and this proportion increased throughout the 19th century. In 1850, the peasants were encouraged to set up a cooperative credit system to finance production drives.

  • The level of general and technical education improved. In 1814, primary education be-came obligatory. A vast network of schools was then set up with government aid along with a tightly knit system of professional ag-ricultural education. In 1868, a permanent training system was set up for young farmers (through training grants)

The crisis of the 1880s ended the construction of the Danish agricultural system:

  • The small and medium sized farmers were reoriented towards intensive animal production, such as pork, dairy products, beef and eggs, which were more profitable than cereal and vegetable production on small farms;

  • They were also oriented towards exports. Denmark is a small country whose main natural resource is agriculture, thus it could gain from exploiting a branch hitherto neglected by the large industrial countries. In 1880, Denmark exported 2/3 of its production. With the appearance of cheap cereals, Denmark became at first a factory for proc-essing animal products for the large urban conurbations of Germany, and later for those of the United Kingdom. From 1870 to 1914, the number of dairy cows doubled, butter production quadrupled and the number of pigs multiplied by six;

  • This change relied « on a solidly organised, well managed and disciplined peasantry. This was the accomplishment of the farmers’ unions (Landboforeniger). » Established to lead the struggle for the political and economic liberation of the peasantry, they backed a policy of agricultural expansion by building a powerful cooperative sector.

In an agricultural system whose production is intended for export, price levels are no longer bound to local markets and internal demand. « For each product, the market became unified under the authority of the export offices set up by the cooperatives. They organised each production branch into hierarchically organised “sectors”. The farm products began to take on modern characteristics: they became uniform, with rigorous technical and quality standards, and at the same time they were made distinctive through the competition brought by the introduction of brands and labels. The markets and prices were regulated by the cooperatives and export offices, which also oriented production.

Individual farming had distanced itself from its origins in one essential way: whereas small farmers had worked for an existing demand, expressed beforehand and known to them, new farmers worked for a remote market whose limits were unknown. Thus, farmers were encouraged to produce more and more and to increase their incomes. However, such practices required the involvement of other actors, particularly the government: « the most important characteristic of this new agriculture is the vital role played by the government. This is evident first of all in its emergence, since the « liberation » of the individual small farmer would have been unthinkable without a political project directed by the government, through the political, administrative, and financial assistance it gave the organised peasantry. Furthermore, the important role played by the State is inherent to Denmark’s political economy, which supposes that the government dictates a development strategy, ensures and finances the regulation of production, investment and markets, either directly or indirectly through cooperation with farmers unions. »

The Danish agricultural system is in some ways the prototype of modern agricultural policies that every capitalist European country has adopted and implemented henceforth. Similar transformations can be found in the small countries of Northern Europe, such as the Netherlands, due to economic necessity, whereas in the other countries of Western Europe, the modernisation of agriculture took much longer, occurred more slowly and was less generalised and systematic, because of the coexistence of different agrarian systems (peasant farming and large estates in Southern and Eastern Europe), or due to the existence of vast empires, or the early supremacy of industry (United Kingdom, France).

From the end of the 19th century, one after another, European countries explicitly decided to base their agriculture on the individual farm rather than on the big capitalist farms that dominate British farming, by providing it with the means to fulfil its potential for development: firstly, via finance and, secondly, by a series of measures aimed at modernising farms and adapting their size to the needs of society (called « structural policies » in France).

Author of Record: Michel MERLET

Translation: Mary Rodeghier. 2007.