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Cooperatives as a form of business organization are distinct from the more common Investor-Owned Firms (IOFs). Both are organized as corporations, but IOFs pursue profit maximization objectives, whereas cooperatives strive to maximize the benefits they generate for their members (which usually involves zero-profit operation). Agricultural cooperatives are therefore created in situations where farmers cannot obtain essential services from IOFs (because the provision of these services is judged to be unprofitable by the IOFs), or when IOFs provide the services at disadvantageous terms to the farmers (i.e., the services are available, but the profit-motivated prices are too high for the farmers). The former situations are characterized in economic theory as market failure or missing services motive. The latter drive the creation of cooperatives as a competitive yardstick or as a means of allowing farmers to build countervailing market power to oppose the IOFs. The concept of competitive yardstick implies that farmers, faced with unsatisfactory performance by IOFs, may form a cooperative firm whose purpose is to force the IOFs, through competition, to improve their service to farmers.

A practical motivation for the creation of agricultural cooperatives is related to the ability of farmers to pool production and/or resources. In many situations within agriculture, it is simply too expensive for farmers to manufacture products or undertake a service. Cooperatives provide a method for farmers to join together in an ‘association’, through which a group of farmers can acquire a better outcome, typically financial, than by going alone. This approach is aligned to the concept of economies of scale and can also be related as a form of economic synergy, where “two or more agents working together to produce a result not obtainable by any of the agents independently”. While it may seem reasonable to conclude that larger the cooperative the better, this is not necessarily true. Cooperatives exist across a broad membership base, with some cooperatives having fewer than 20 members while others can have over 10,000.

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While the economic benefits are a strong driver in forming cooperatives, it is not the sole consideration. In fact, it is possible for the economic benefits from a cooperative to be replicated in other organisational forms, such as an IOF. An important strength of a cooperative for the farmer is that they retain the governance of the association, thereby ensuring they have ultimate ownership and control. This ensures that the profit reimbursement (either through the dividend payout or rebate) is shared only amongst the farmer members, rather than shareholders as in an IOF.

In agriculture, there are broadly three types of cooperatives: a machinery pool, a manufacturing/marketing cooperative, and a credit union.

  • Machinery Pool: A family farm may be too small to justify the purchase of expensive farm machinery, which may be only used irregularly, say only during harvest; instead local farmers may get together to form a machinery pool that purchases the necessary equipment for all the members to use.
  • Manufacturing/marketing cooperative: A farm does not always have the means of transportation necessary for delivering its produce to the market, or else the small volume of its production may put it in an unfavorable negotiating position with respect to intermediaries and wholesalers; a cooperative will act as an integrator, collecting the output from members, sometimes undertaking manufacturing, and delivering it in large aggregated quantities downstream through the marketing channels.
  • Credit Union: Farmers, especially in developing countries, can be charged relatively high interest rates by commercial banks, or even not available for farmers to access. When providing loans, these banks are often mindful of high transaction costs on small loans, or may be refused credit altogether due to lack of collateral – something very acute in developing countries. To provide a source of credit, farmers can group together funds that can be loaned out to members. Alternatively, the credit union can raise loans at better rates from commercial banks due to the cooperative having a larger associative size than an individual farmer. Often members of a credit union will provide mutual or peer-pressure guarantees for repayment of loans. In some instances, manufacturing/marketing cooperatives may have credit unions as part of their broader business. Such an approach allows farmers to have a more direct access to critical farm inputs, such as seeds and implements. The loans for these inputs are repaid when the farmer sends produce to the manufacturing/marketing cooperative.
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Source: Agricultural cooperative