University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Boosting the 3 Bs: England's Plunkett Foundation promotes "The furtherance of rural cooperation"

By Eliza Banks

In America, hardly a cooperative celebration goes by when those English craftsmen who formed the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society aren't feted for their foresight. So it may come as a surprise that there's often a perceptible lack of enthusiasm toward cooperatives in the very country credited with their creation.

But that's the situation in some sectors of the United Kingdom today. Despite this skepticism, however, for 80 years there has been one voice encouraging, cajoling, and supporting cooperatives and the people who want to start them. At the Plunkett Foundation, near Oxford in south-central England, a team of dedicated cooperative advocates acts as a driving force behind the growth of UK rural cooperatives and other member-controlled businesses.

Through its accumulated experience, extensive network of consultants, and a reference library approaching 40,000 books, journals and articles, the Plunkett Foundation strives to offer appropriate support and sign-posting to all types of cooperatives both in the UK and around the world.

An "Anglo-American Irishman"

Established in 1919, the Plunkett Foundation bears the name of its founder, the cooperative organizer, agriculturalist and statesman Sir Horace Plunkett (1854-1932). In pursuit of his famous "Three Bs" (Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living"), Plunkett and a small band of influential, but rigorously non-political, associates inspired the creation of literally hundreds of cooperatives, first in Ireland and then around the globe.

In the 1880s, Plunkett spent part of each year as a Wyoming cattle rancher and shrewd observer of rural progress, including the growth of the National Grange movement. Returning to Ireland in 1889, he soon set about a nonstop program of cooperative development and agricultural education. After repeated failures, Plunkett established his first cooperative "creamery" in 1891. Three years later, he founded the country's apex organization for the burgeoning number of agricultural cooperatives. His diaries, kept in the

Foundation's unique cooperative reference library, describe the exhausting work of organizing co-ops in the face of stern opposition from local moneylenders, traders, and other vested interests.

Still a frequent visitor to America, and now Ireland's equivalent to the Secretary of Agriculture, Plunkett became a close associate and confidant of President Theodore Roosevelt and his apostle of conservation, Gifford Pinchot, sharing ideas on rural development and, in 1910, publishing The Rural Life Problem of the U.S.

"By golly," Roosevelt is quoted as booming to Plunkett, "I wish you were an American and either in the Senate or my Cabinet!" Plunkett's American connections didn't end there, and he subsequently shared his enthusiasm for empowering farmers with Presidents Taft and Wilson.

Reluctance persists

So, after all this time, why aren't UK farmers more aware of the benefits of co-ops? And why do UK farmers harbor resistance to collaboration, even though cooperative involvement is strong in many sectors and is arguably vital to competing in a global market? The reasons are largely historical.

First, England's smaller geographic area, greater population density, and village trading infrastructure meant that, for most of rural England—and unlike Ireland or the United States— there were few compelling reasons to "circle the wagons" in cooperation.

Second, in the mid-20th century this island nation's need to sustain core agricultural productivity was exacerbated by war. Unfortunately, the support pricing and capital grants for this purpose were only made available to individual farms, thus creating no incentive for cooperation. Ironically, the converse of this was happening in Continental Europe, where agricultural economies were being rebuilt using cooperation as one of the foundation stones.

Third, there is the legacy of statutory marketing boards in commodities such as milk, wool and potatoes. Until recently, that meant individual producers did not have control over this link in the chain.

And finally, even today, there is widespread lack of knowledge about co-ops and how they work. The subject receives little, if any, attention in the nation's curriculum (and sometimes even in major schools of agriculture). And there have been no significant injections of government capital or a designated body to promote the development of cooperative enterprise.

Taken together, these factors have perpetuated a reluctance to embrace cooperation. It is this gap that the Plunkett Foundation seeks to fill with a combination of information, advice, seminars, study tours and advocacy. The current dire straits in UK agriculture would appear to be generating a re-appraisal of cooperation and its potential, notes Information Services Manager Kate Targett. Necessity, she observes, has often been the mother of cooperatives as well as invention.

A native of Michigan, Targett has been working recently to extend the Foundation's reach still wider by uploading the library's key-worded index onto the Internet, a project made possible by a grant from the Dublinand Boston-based Ireland Funds.

Tradition and individuality

In contrast to America's ready acceptance of expansion and innovation, the UK agricultural industry has always taken pride in its long tradition, as well as its individuality. From her perspective, though, Targett believes that UK cooperators could profitably take on board some lessons from their counterparts across the Atlantic. "At the moment," she says, "the United Kingdom probably has more to learn from America than it can teach the United States, although it has to be remembered that the situations are by no means parallel, particularly in terms of scale and public policy."

Having observed the English scene for 15 years, she suggests that abilities to change may constitute a further difference. "Whereas Americans will often default to 'Why not?' the British attitude is sometimes 'Rather not,"' she notes. For example, UK cooperatives have been slow to adopt vertical integration as a means of capturing added value for the producer and keeping pace with developments in European and American markets. Meanwhile, cooperatives such as those in Denmark and Sweden have forged ahead in processing and marketing products supplied by co-op members.

Cream rises . . . or sour milk?

Yet there are small signs of change afoot in some UK sectors, such as dairying, where there are examples of successful processing subsidiaries. For the most part, however, the dairy industry has evolved differently from the U.S. and Europe. From the 1930s, the existence of the Milk Marketing Board meant that the industry's processing and manufacturing capacity developed privately. However, farmers soon became concerned that they were missing out on any resulting "added value," which eventually led to the formation of the Board's wholly owned subsidiary Dairy Crest.

When the Milk Marketing Board was deregulated in 1994, Dairy Crest was privatized (although farmers owned most of the shares). At the same time, Milk Marque was formed and became the largest dairy cooperative in the European Union. Initially, it was able to use its strength on behalf of its members. But the crunch came last summer when the government's competition authorities published a report highly critical of Milk Marque's selling system. As a consequence, the cooperative decided to split into three roughly equal regional cooperatives.

Commenting on these developments at a recent Plunkett Milk Groups Conference, the Foundation's Chief Executive Simon Rawlinson noted, "It seems a travesty that, while the rest of the world seems to be reaping the benefits of vertical integration and economies of scale, the UK seems to be being forced to regroup and start again. No other dairy industry in a developed country has attracted the same attention from the competition authorities, despite many others having a much larger market share."

Working around the world

The Plunkett Foundation's achievements in the UK are rivaled only by its successes abroad, where it provides support tailored to the conditions of emerging user-controlled groups and businesses. With a tradition of overseas development going back decades, the Foundation recently has been heavily involved with the emerging democracies of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Here, where cooperatives had become "top-down" arms of state policy, the Foundation found a lot of work combating the discredited image of cooperation. It has met with notable success, Targett says.

In Poland, projects funded by the European Commission and the UK's Department for International Development successfully encouraged farmers to diversify operations and keep rural communities viable. In one instance, Britain's holiday tradition of "bed and breakfast inns" inspired Polish farm families to develop a niche market for agri-tourism. Recent study tours have been arranged for delegates from Australia and Zimbabwe. Earlier programs have influenced participants from Albania, China, Grenada, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Lesotho, Moldova, St. Lucia, Uzbekistan and Zambia, among others.

The Foundation's Library and Information Service is open to all, and a limited amount of assistance and consultation is provided free. Lists of publications concerning every aspect of cooperative theory and practice are available on request, and should soon be accessible via the Internet.

As an educational trust, the Foundation is not, despite its name, a grant-making organization. Its income is generated from memberships; project funding from the European Commission, the UK's Department for International Development, and a variety of NGOs and development agencies; and the sale of publications. Since 1927, it has published an annual anthology of international cooperative know-how, now entitled The World of Co-operative Enterprise, as well as being the only organization to compile and publish an annual directory and statistics of UK agricultural cooperatives.

For more information on the Plunkett Foundation and its services, visit its website at or email

Editor's note: Raised on an Upper Midwest family dairy farm that does business through cooperatives, Eliza Banks is now a writer based in North Yorkshire, England.

 Return to UWCC Homepage