Freeman: Social License to Operate Has Different Meanings

Social license to operate is a phrase coined in the mining industry referring to how the mines are accepted in their communities. This phrase has been morphed into other industries and is becoming more of a key element in the day-to-day concerns in operating a farm.

In the last decade, more and more time is spent by ag leaders discussing this topic at gatherings. One thing to remember is social license to operate has different meanings to different generations.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman, MSGA Vice President

When I first mentioned social license to operate, my father responded with this: In my day that was called being a good neighbor. Another common phrase used to describe social license to operate is “do onto your neighbor as you want them to do onto you.” That worked when you knew your neighbors for 20 miles around and had a fairly good idea of their needs.

When I mention the social license to operate to my children, they say yes we need to have accountability and transparency in food production. Interestingly, the younger generations have gone through times of mistrust in government, business and church. Add their mistrust to the different communication avenues technology has brought, they simply gather information more from their peers to formulate opinions. A twist in this information flow is one can present stacks of university research to dispute their opinion and their first response is why are you attacking my friends!

When I talk with producers with a long tenure in agriculture, their response is we made it through turbulent times in the past and we need to first stay in business and then respond to outside influences second. Other concepts engrained over the years is “don’t stick your head up much, the less others know what you do the less they might regulate you,” and “don’t invite others to your business; they might fall and sue you.”

Observing these three varied perspectives, the question arises, how do we find common ground to move forward?

The key component is genuine engagement of friends and foes  around us as we operate our farms. This includes opening your farms to visitors, educating where we can and transparency in what we do.

Don’t worry, you are not alone on this. Belonging to trade groups such as the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association can help. Letting individuals fail in social licensing is failing the industry so we do need to work together.  The engagement process needs to be tailored differently to varied groups to speak to each of their needs and priorities. It may be your farm, but it is their food. We all lose if we don’t find ways to operate with respect both ways.

 Paul Freeman is a soybean farmer from Starbuck. He is Vice President of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and is the chair of the Advocacy action team, which is made up of 12 MSGA directors. Paul can be reached at