While agricultural cooperatives have long been a part of rural society in different cultures throughout the world, by the 1980s and the emergence of neoliberalism, cooperatives were seen as an anachronism; in the United States, they became hippie leftovers or even possibly communists! Given the supposed culture of American self-reliance and independence, it seems problematic that farmers (or fishers) would we able to collectively work together for success in their own enterprises. However, the contemporary social and economic environment is different in the globalized 21st century, which many have argued have seen the return of the cooperative.
In my work on North Carolina aquaculturalists, I found that both federal and state governments were particularly active in promoting local agriculture cooperatives as a way for helping small-scale, local farmers economically survive. In addition to sharing marketing information and production expertise with members, cooperatives provide access to capital resources (i.e., a processing facility or specialized equipment necessary for transport of goods such as a flash-freeze unit) to local farmers. They may also help local farmers collectively navigate bureaucratic regimes that would otherwise be difficult for individuals, such as in establishing a nutritional label or organic/sustainability certification (such as through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program).
As globalization has penetrated to the most local of regions, cooperatives have seen a resurgence of popularity as a symbol of both local resistance to multinational corporations and as a branding mechanism for small enterprises. This revalorization of the local can be seen in new social movements like the Slow Food Movement, the farm-to-table movements, or the locavore movement that have transformed food consumption into political statements. Ideas about sustainability have been coupled together with the strange bedfellow of food security in a way that makes farmers markets and local food products a highly-valued commodity.
In an analysis of Sardinian shepherd cooperatives, Vargas-Cetina (2011) argues that cooperatives serve as a moral bulwark against the visible amoralism and social danger of transnational corporations (who are beholden to unseen shareholders, not customers). Paradoxically, however, globalization, with its neoliberal ideology, has also given new life to agricultural cooperatives, where they are essentially treated as small corporations:
Today, cooperatives are still treated as firms of different sizes, so the EU’s and the Italian policies continue to apply to them in that general capacity. Agropastoral cooperatives now have to navigate the policies of the European Community, the price fluctuations that occur in the markets where they operate, the funds and projects for businesses and cooperatives promoted and implemented by the Italian government, and the always tighter regulations pertaining to food and food-processing quality enforced by the EU. (Vargas-Cetina 2011:S129)
In other words, local agricultural cooperatives can flourish and compete with transnational agribusinesses precisely because “local” has become a value-added property of commodities.
Orbach, Michael K. 1980 Fishery cooperatives on the Chesapeake Bay: Advantage or Anachronism? Anthropological Quarterly. 53(1):48-55.
Vargas-Cetina, Gabriela 2011 Corporations, cooperatives, and the state. Current Anthropology 52(S3): S127-S136.