Rebuilding dairy farming’s social license to operate with the public

I was bamboozled by science except for one presentation by the director of Our Land and Water National Science Challenge Ken Taylor who works for AgResearch. He was a good speaker, and his topic piqued my interest.

Taylor praised the farming leaders, headed by Federated Farmers president Katie Milne, who fronted up and said: “water quality is our problem, we’ll own it and fix it.” Taylor told us that they were seizing the initiative and stepping towards rebuilding farming’s social license to operate (SLO).

I’d never heard of this term before, but have since discovered that everybody else has.

Google told me a SLO refers to the level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders of organisations and their operations.

Taylor says SLO is a must for primary industries.

Apparently, the concept has been around for 20 years and originated in the mining industry. There were a few mining “whoopsies” in the 1990s and mining companies were struggling to get on with the communities in which they operated. They needed to build an SLO – in short; they needed to get back on side with the locals.

Taylor says the farming sectors are hovering between “legitimacy and credibility” on the SLO ladder. Some sectors have lost their social license altogether.

Obviously, he was talking about the dairy industry, which seems to have got offside with a large chunk of the Kiwi population. It’s blamed for poor water quality, too many nitrates, too many cows and the urban-rural standoff.

So what can the dairy industry do to regain its SLO and the trust of the public?

Some more googling brought up an excellent paper by Kellogg rural leader Michael Woodward called The Urban-Rural Divide: How can the New Zealand dairy industry protect and better it’s social license with New Zealand’s urban populations? I recommend it.

The goal of the report was to identify ways dairy farmers could improve their social license and rebuild public trust enough for farmers of the future to form a negotiated autonomy.

Woodward surveyed opinions on the state of the environment, finding that farmers were more optimistic than those outside of farming. His results pointed towards farmers not wanting to educate themselves at field days, thinking they knew enough from just working on farms. This attitude is the basis for the widening of the rural-urban divide and the weakening of the social license farmers have with the New Zealand public, Woodward says.

In his recommendations, he says farmers must get out of the mindset of just doing what they need to remain compliant. Dairy farmers need to be more united in the “good” message they tell, and opening their farms up to the public would be a step towards this. They need quality data backed up by good on-farm practices. And this needs to be qualified by paper – certification schemes will go a long way towards showing the public that farmers are doing what they can to make a difference.

But not one of the above recommendations can protect the social license of dairy farmers alone, Woodward says. It needs to be a joint approach with the other primary industries.

Woodward deduces that the demands the urban population put on farmers, and especially dairy farmers, won’t go away. And their requirements will become more complicated with the rise and rise of social media.

Dairy farmers now more than ever need to engage in the world that is changing around them, Woodward says. They must go to field days, adopt modern technology and systems that not only create efficiencies but also alleviate the concerns of the public. Continue to improve environmentally focused farming practices. Go above and beyond compliance, for legislation is already forcing farmers into a corner and that corner will only get smaller.

As Woodward says, the ship has sailed long ago on a world that turned a blind eye to poor on-farm practices. Education will make farmers become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, and help propel them towards a renewed SLO.

 

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