Cooperative or Uncooperative Cooperatives? Digging into the Process of Cooperation in Food and Agriculture Cooperatives




Cooperative, Decision-making, Leadership, Emotions, Alternative Food Networks, Community Capitals


Cooperative organizing around food and agricul­ture is nothing new (Knupfer, 2013). However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the cooperative legal form. This research has followed this rebirth in a region in the western United States where rural producers and urban consumers, gentrifying communities of color, and environ­mentally minded communities strive to improve other communities and food futures. As part of these efforts, it can be easy to assume cooperation within a legal status. Yet, as this research examines, cooperatives can be quite uncooperative in prac­tice. Through extensive field work, we found that food and agriculture cooperatives struggle to make decision-making inclusive, may reproduce inequi­ties through leadership performance, and may unevenly distribute the emotional work necessary to cooperation. These patterns also relate to how cooperatives access resources and point to tensions in expanding networks. While homogeneity can make interactions smoother—thereby making trust and day-to-day activities easier—it also limits a cooperative’s (co-op) resource access. Resource access can be improved through partnerships, such as with nonprofits. However, these connections can lead to certain leadership performances that delegitimize cooperative efforts from the perspec­tive of structurally disadvantaged community members. Further, the anonymity that consumers have become accustomed to creates challenges for recruiting shoppers because co-ops take more emotional work. A disproportionate amount of emotional work falls on staff members, contribu­ting to resentment and insincere performance. We make a number of suggestions about how coopera­tives can work to improve both organizational and interactional forms of cooperation.


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Author Biographies

James Hale, University of Otago

Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago; 563 Castle St N; Dunedin

Michael Carolan, Colorado State University

Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs and Professor, Department of Sociology; B241 Clark; Colorado State University; Fort Collins, CO 80523-1784



How to Cite

Hale, J., & Carolan, M. (2018). Cooperative or Uncooperative Cooperatives? Digging into the Process of Cooperation in Food and Agriculture Cooperatives. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 8(1), 113–132.