General Mills Makes Major Organic Move

Mike Troy
Editorial Director
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Gunsmoke Farms
A unique sourcing commitment from General Mills helped 34,000-acre Gunsmoke Farms manage the three-year transition to becoming USDA certified organic.

An innovative and unprecedented collaboration between General Mills and a 34,000-acre farm in South Dakota will ensure retailers are able to meet consumer demand for organic macaroni and cheese.

Following a three-year conversion process, General Mills said 34,000-acre Gunsmoke Farms near Pierre, South Dakota, has received organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organics Program. The acreage will produce organic wheat for use in General Mills brand of Annie’s Mac & Cheese pasta products.

The USDA certification is significant because the farm had been managed conventionally for more than three decades, and the conversion process to organic from conventional required General Mills to engage in a new type of direct contracting.

“General Mills has been on our soil health journey since 2016 and working with Gunsmoke Farms solidified our belief that regenerative agriculture can be a transformative lever for farmers to be a part of the climate solution,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer for General Mills. “This type of long-term, direct contracting is unprecedented for General Mills and the industry. If we truly aim to be a force for good, our role is to give farmers the tools to be more resilient – both environmentally and financially.”

In 2018, General Mills engaged in a strategic sourcing arrangement to transition the land to organic. The deal required General Mills to invest in the transition and then source organic wheat from 10,000 acres for its Annie’s Mac & Cheese pasta products. The process of certifying the land as organic involved a three-year prohibition on the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and a detailed plan for how the land will be used in the future.

As part of the land transition, a series of regenerative agriculture practices were executed. For example, a combination of cover crops were grown and there was a diverse crop rotation. A living root was kept in the ground year-round to minimize tillage which helped restore the land to a holistic farming system that now grows spring wheat, winter wheat, alfalfa, oats, peas and Kernza.

Healthy Soil at Core of Regenerative Agriculture

Soil health is the foundation of General Mills’ sustainability efforts and Gunsmoke Farms proved to be the ideal proving ground. For more than three decades, the land was farmed with no diversity and experienced declining soil health. In the future, the farm managers will work to develop plans for 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat to encourage thriving above and below ground biodiversity, according to General Mills. A well-planned pollinator habitat can invite beneficial insects to agricultural landscapes and help a variety of species, including bumble bees, squash bees, honeybees and butterflies. Such habitat can also improve water quality, reduce soil erosion and protect game and songbirds.

The move is the latest effort by General Mills to expand its natural and organic business. Since 2000, the company has steadily expanded through brand acquisitions to meet growing consumer demand, and today one of out of every six products in the company’s North American portfolio is certified organic or made with organic ingredients. General Mills is the second largest U.S. producer of natural and organic foods with brands including Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, EPIC, Muir Glen and Liberté. In fiscal 2020, the company’s natural and organic portfolio in North America was more than $1 billion in net sales.

“Annie’s was founded on a commitment to better the world and today, we’re focused on advancing organic and sustainable farming,” said Emily Thomas, vice president, managing director of natural and organic at General Mills. “Later this year, through the purchase of our Annie’s Mac & Cheese pastas, consumers will enjoy organic wheat grown at Gunsmoke Farms, support local farmers and contribute to the health of our planet through regenerative agriculture practices like soil health and biodiversity.”