Social licensing is a term that continues to gain traction and will become more prominently spoken in our on-farm vocabulary. Social licence refers to the level of public trust granted to a corporate entity or industry sector by the community at large and its key consumer base. Public trust is the belief that activities are consistent with social expectations and the values of the stakeholders, and earned through industry engagement, operating practices and expressed values. Social licensing is slow to build and quick to erode. Industry tactically garners public trust by doing what is right. Simply put, it's today’s society and its acceptance – or rejection -- of the way things are done.
On my family farm, my sister runs a direct-to-consumer seasonal, local fruit and vegetable food box program. This program is subscription-based and runs over 20 weeks starting mid June to beginning of November. The business has grown to supply more than 500 families a variety of seasonal, local, conventional, organic, sustainable, environmentally conscious, socially responsible, all-natural, gluten-free, farm-fresh produce all placed together with balanced symmetry in a reusable plastic container. Okay, we really don't advertise that way, however a strong case can be made for each of those adjectives.
What does it all really mean or insinuate? Is it just marketing? Who determines what is right? Who is driving the interpretation of information? Debate of any of those terms can lead to divisions and subdivisions. These divisions and subdivisions can take conversation from moderate disagreement in methodology to passion-fueled activism. Back at the farm, the three most commonly asked questions are: Is the produce organic? Do you use Monsanto seed? Do you use GMOs? Having the advantage of dealing directly with the end consumer, we are able to engage in an honest conversation about horticulture. During the conversation, I find that often consumers of produce are not entirely sure why they ask a particular question or what they are really asking, however they feel socially compelled to ask.
I am not insinuating the consumer’s lack of ability to reason. After a sincere conversation, the majority of our customers feel good about the their food system and confident in their choice. We are at a time in history where information is overly accessible and fraught with a myriad of marketing and competing agendas. Two percent of our North American population farms. Society’s disconnected relationship with the land and the people who produce our food is at an all-time high. This disengagement along with polarizing information overload has led to a society that still trusts and respects farmers, but are confused and suspicious about the business of agriculture. Unfortunately there are many myths and half-truths being driven by realms outside of agriculture that are leading to knee-jerk reactions in developing policy and legislation. This type of response challenges our competitiveness and risks our ability to meet the premier’s challenge to grow our industry.
The effectiveness of our lobbying will depend on our ability to inform and re-establish social expectations around modern agriculture. We have a good story to tell. Globally, Canadian agriculture is highly respected. Let us reinforce this message at home. Farmers are highly educated men and women. They understand the dynamics of the environment in which they work and sustain it well. They are extremely innovative, highly technical, yet very practical. They have a diverse skill set. They are constantly learning, adapting and implementing. It is time now for farmers to add to their resume and become story tellers and educators. Farmers need to drive the information. If we want to earn and maintain our social licence to operate, we have to actively tell our story.