Can the Infrastructure of a Mission-Driven Cooperative Make Agricultural Producers More Cooperative?

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
258 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Kathryn Gregory Anderson, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
Research question

To what extent, and in what ways, does the coordinating infrastructure of a mission-driven agricultural producer co-operative transform dairy farmers’ worldviews towards more collectivism and social- (in contrast with market-) embeddedness?  What contextual factors mediate these processes?

Intellectual context

This paper contributes to the literature on how market structures perform various cultural ideologies (Callon, 1998; Ferraro, Pfeffer, & Sutton, 2005), either through the intentional behavior of those who construct the material infrastructure or through unintentionally smuggled-in values (Falk & Szech, 2013).  Much of this research explores how commodifying material structures, such as trade laws, computer algorithms, and finance, perform a discourse that supports a competitive individualist worldview.  My research adds to a growing body of evidence concerning the opportunities and limitations of alternative market structures developed explicitly to re-embed the social in production systems.  My work bridges the meso, micro, and macro to explore how one ideological production co-operative’s infrastructure for information sharing, dialogue, democratic decision-making, and social networking influences the identities, beliefs, values, and meaning-making of its member-producers, and how these processes are mediated by personal and cultural factors, business networks, and the broader political economy. 

The case

My case is a comparison of Organic Valley, a mission-driven cooperative, and Horizon Organic, an investor-owned, publicly-traded firm.  The cooperative structure of Organic Valley “coordinates” the market activity of its roughly 2,000 member-owner dairy farmers in 32 states in a number of material and discursive ways.  Horizon Organic relies on a more purely market-driven relationship with its farmer-suppliers that does not coordinate activities or information-sharing beyond market exchange, and does not prioritize the long-term well-being of its roughly 600 farmer-suppliers in 22 states.  The two companies are very similar in important respects, helping to hold somewhat constant many other potential influences on producers’ identities and worldviews.  Both companies produce and market organic dairy products nation-wide in the United States and they both source from and to roughly the same input and output markets.  Three aspects about this comparison are particularly important for these analyses: 1) Organic Valley is a democratically run cooperative firm and Horizon is a hierarchical, privately owned firm.  2) Furthermore, in comparison with a partnership or family business, Horizon is a publicly-traded investor-owned firm.  3) Organic Valley is an ideological company whose mission is to practice environmental awareness, serve small family farms, and make farming a viable career for the next generation of farmers (CROPP, n.d.; Johnson, 2015).


To investigate these questions, I use a three-pronged mixed methods strategy: in-depth interviews with organic dairy farmers and employees of Organic Valley and Horizon, two online surveys that measure individualism-collectivism and environmental attitudes, and an online public goods experimental game.  To capture variation in underlying cultural values, climate, geography, and market conditions, I sample four regions in Wisconsin and California. Within these regions, farmers are sampled based on farm size, length of time with company, and co-op engagement (whether they serve on formal leadership committees or the board).


Data collection is ongoing, and will conclude in April 2016.  I present some initial results here, and the paper I submit to the mini-conference in May will include more thorough analyses. 

The tremendous heterogeneity among Organic Valley member farmers provides a unique opportunity to investigate, on a micro-level, how individual farmers’ different contexts condition their experience of the co-op, and on a meso-level, how the diversity of the farmer-network influences the very nature of the co-op.  I distinguish between two different magnitudes of “co-op effect” on an individual producer: awareness and commitment.  During the process wherein a farmer (1) joins the co-op, (2) interacts with the co-op economically (pay price), technically (veterinary and other farm services), and socially (meetings, farm-days, social network), and (3) is (or is not) transformed by the co-op experience, the farmer can become aware, to different degrees, of a real possibility of a collectivist alternative to neoliberal “free”-market capitalist social relations, and he or she also can become committed to this alternative to different degrees.

A number of micro-level factors have emerged from my data that predict more or less openness to transformation.  Among characteristics that are observable quantitatively, the most important appears to be size and business strategy/technology.  Larger operations that are more dependent on market-processes because they are more dependent on purchased (rather than self-provided) inputs, and yet are more independent from their neighbors in terms of informal exchange of equipment, knowledge, or other support (because of their economy of scale), are typically less open to transformation in their awareness of and commitment to the possibility of collectivist, socially embedded economies.  Producers’ personalities, transformative personal experiences (such as illness or divorce), and stage in the life-course are important micro-level variables that mediate size and technology. 

At the meso-level, individual producers’ interactions with the co-operative’s infrastructure are strongly influenced by regional markets, in particular the potential opportunities for defection offered by firms who compete with the cooperative for their business.  Furthermore, the nature of this competition is strongly influenced by the behavior of the cooperative itself, which both results from and impinges on the producer social network coordinated through its infrastructure.  


Callon, M. (1998). Introduction: The embeddedness of economic markets in economics. In The Laws of the Market. Oxford: Blackwell.

CROPP. (n.d.). Our Mission. Retrieved from

Falk, a., & Szech, N. (2013). Morals and Markets. Science, 340(6133), 707–711.

Ferraro, F., Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2005). Economics language and assumptions: How theories can become self-fulfilling. Academy of Management Review, 30(1), 8–24.

Johnson, M. (2015, December 23). Organic Valley surpasses $1 billion in sales for 2015. Vernon County Broadcaster. Retrieved from