See more of the story

General Mills became a food giant by pioneering ideas to get people in and out of the kitchen more quickly. Now, it has moved to the front lines of an agricultural movement it didn’t start.

A series of investments in recent months for its growing portfolio of natural and organic products has been aimed at fortifying the land where its food is grown.

And those moves, which roped General Mills into a growing movement called regenerative agriculture, show the influence a small startup can have on its larger parent company. General Mills awakened to the movement when it purchased Epic Provisions, a meat-snack producer, in 2016.

“This area of regenerative agriculture has really gotten a lot of attention and we’ve been on our own journey over the last three years,” said Jerry Lynch, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “We’ve done a lot of work both understanding it and also in trying to help measure it.”

Best known for its traditional packaged foods, like Cheerios cereals, Betty Crocker mixes and Progresso soup, General Mills has substantially expanded its reach in natural, organic and Earth-friendly grocery products over the past decade. It’s a top-five organic-ingredient purchaser and the second-largest buyer of organic fruits and vegetables in North American packaged food.

One of the main challenges to growth is the dearth of food ingredients grown in a way that meet the social and environmental promises of those brands and the expectations of their consumers.

To address this dilemma, the Golden Valley-based food company revisited how it sources ingredients. By working with farmers, company executives believe they can help change the growing practices in such a way that increase biodiversity, improved water quality and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and use of harmful chemicals.

“General Mills will not be doing its part unless it improves the sustainability of all its ingredients, not just organic,” said John Church, executive vice president and head of supply chain at General Mills.

Regenerating the soil

Regenerative agriculture is one big button the company can push to help it reach its own environmental goals, Church said, such as reversing the negative impact that agriculture has on climate change.

In March, the company announced a partnership with a private-equity group to help transition a 34,000-acre conventional farm in South Dakota into organic cropland by 2020. The farm will also act as a sort of experimental station for better soil health practices as well — something related, but technically separate, from organic farming principles.

The land, called Gunsmoke Farms, was bought by a joint venture of TPG Capital and Colvin & Co. Under the arrangement, the firms agreed to buy Gunsmoke Farms with General Mills promising to be a guaranteed buyer of its products, particularly wheat to be used to make pasta for its Annie’s boxed macaroni and cheese products.

At 53 square miles, Gunsmoke will be one of the nation’s largest contiguous organic farms in the nation.

General Mills made a similar transition agreement in 2016 with Organic Valley to help convert conventional dairy farms to organic. The food company has partnered with Midwestern Bio Ag, which will offer day-to-day guidance to the farm operators on how to incorporate regenerative agriculture practices.

While sustainable agriculture tries to maintain the health of the land, regenerative agriculture focuses on actually building up the land’s resiliency. The farm will start by eliminating tillage, incorporating crop rotation and cover cropping. Church said the company hopes the next phase will include cattle grazing, which is considered by many land advocates, including Epic Provisions, to be the ultimate next step in improving the soil.

“The beauty of Gunsmoke is we brought our businesses together,” Church said.

General Mills will get value out of the land by growing wheat for Annie’s and eventually growing livestock for Epic. And if all goes well, it will improve the company’s overall environmental goals through measured improvement of the land.

General Mills and its Cascadian Farm brand announced, also in March, a five-year investment of $125,000 to explore the economic and social impacts of implementing better soil health practices on the farm. The money will fund Grain Millers, the world’s largest organic oat processor, to document with farmers what regenerative practices work, what don’t and ways to encourage other growers to join the cause.

There are plenty of growers out there using regenerative agriculture practices who are looking for markets for their better-for-the-Earth crops, said Kent Solberg, a Minnesota farmer and grazing specialist at the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota.

“There are producers looking to connect with processors to understand exactly what they are looking for,” Solberg said. “The growers are hoping to get some feedback on if their practices are good enough because it’s risky to step out. Meanwhile we have processors interested in moving forward on this and they need to find producers. It’s just trying to figure out how they can work together.”

The pilot project will focus on oat farmers in the Upper Midwest. General Mills built a scorecard to quantify and prove out the benefits of regenerative agriculture that will be used in projects like this one.

“We have to experiment with a lot of practices in different climates and on different crops,” said Carla Vernon, president of the Annie’s operating unit. “A brand like Cascadian Farm can focus on the oat supply and understanding the optimal way to integrate those practices into the largest oat supplier.”

A segregated supply line

In April, General Mills unveiled limited-edition bunny grahams and mac-and-cheese products that include an on-package claim the ingredients inside were raised in such a way that regenerated the soil. These limited-edition products are also traced to two individual farms in Montana.

To launch the products, General Mills had to segregate a supply line, which is expensive to do. The company is sourcing durum wheat and golden peas for its elbow macaroni from farmer Nate Powell-Palm in Bozeman, Mont., and red winter wheat and oats from Casey Bailey, a farmer in Fort Benton, Mont.

“What is so special about these limited-edition products in the mainstream, middle-of-the-grocery-store aisle,” Vernon said, “is the box is going to tell you where those ingredients came from and how they were grown.”

But the company is starting very small to make sure it can follow through on the promises of being both organic and traceable to the source.

“We had never done it on this scale before,” Vernon said, “so we wanted to make sure we could get it right and we wanted to make sure this would be a product Annie’s customers would be interested in.”

That is the biggest concern that regenerative agriculture advocates have when corporations get involved.

“There are so many terms like ‘all-natural’ that have been co-opted and abused that people lose confidence in them,” Solberg said. “The caution here is that if we are going to use the term ‘regenerative,’ what the consumer wants is integrity from top to bottom. It sounds like they recognize the pitfalls.”

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767