The evolution of the role of agricultural cooperatives

Research Area: Innovative models
Scientific coordinator: Carlo Borzaga

Project status: on-going

At this time, agricultural cooperatives are the most significant and common cooperative form. So far, their economic role has been identified primarily in their ability to generate economies of scale for the benefit of individual farmer-members and to overcome failures of the specific market. The literature has, meanwhile, neglected the role of agriculture cooperatives in land conservation and maintaining populations in particularly disadvantaged areas.


This research project proposes to examine the real potential of agricultural cooperatives, explaining their survival and analysing their impact on rural development.

The study wants to bring attention to a different interpretative approach, concentrated on the effectiveness of knowledge management. Indeed, a knowledge-based approach allows an understanding of the significance of the socialization of (tacit) knowledge – centred precisely on the cooperative ownership structure – in generating a competitive advantage that allows a constant investment in research and development and the generation of new knowledge and innovation, in the agricultural sector as well as others. Additionally, this interpretation allows a better understanding of the role of cooperatives of agricultural producers within local economies.

Taking as its starting point these hypotheses about the relationship between effectiveness in knowledge management and management of the link between members and the agricultural cooperative, the research intends to integrate the existing literature on the role of agricultural cooperatives and to test it using case studies. Additionally, an attempt will be made to prepare a methodology for determining not just the economic but also the social impact of agricultural cooperatives, so as to manage to capture the positive externalities generated for the benefit of the local area.

Main results

So far the research activities have produced an additional new economic justification of modern agricultural cooperatives based on knowledge-based theory. A satellite account has been set up for agricultural cooperatives in Trentino and Italy which includes both the cooperatives and the enterprises they control. This tool has allowed an in-depth analysis of these businesses and the calculation of the economic impact of the agricultural sector in Trentino.

Finally, a theoretical framework, divided by macro-areas of impact, has been developed for the externalities produced by agricultural cooperatives in their local areas.


Borzaga C., Fontanari E. (2014), Le cooperative vitivinicole tra tradizione ed efficienza: Una riflessione sul caso italiano, Euricse Working Papers, n. 64|14.

Fontanari E. (2015), “Il vero valore del settore agricolo”, Cia-Agricoltura trentina, January issue, pp. 14-15.


This project is part of the line of research into New cooperative forms and new roles for cooperation in the Italian and international context.

Over the years, cooperative and social enterprises have taken on different roles and forms, and interest in the potential of these entrepreneurial forms is increasing, especially in regards to certain sectors (such as social services and general interest) and the ability to tackle employment problems and competitiveness in SMEs in particular.

These new forms of enterprise are, however, often defined in an approximate way, partly due to a lack of specific regulation. The development of research aimed at understanding emerging cooperative and social entrepreneurship forms is therefore of particular relevance.

The other research projects carried out by Euricse, in reference primarily to the Italian and European context, are:

Social and community enterprises and cooperatives;
New production and worker cooperatives and the employee buyout phenomenon;
New evolutions and regulation of worker cooperatives.


University of Trento
University of Liege
Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve
University of Toronto
Confcooperative Italia
Centro Studi Lega Coop Bologna
International Study Group on Utility Cooperatives
University of Missouri