The company is the third largest US producer of natural and organic foods, with brands including Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Liberté and Annie’s.
It expects its natural and organic portfolio in North America to reach $1.5bn in net sales by 2020.
For the past decade, the Nature Valley and Fiber One maker has worked on increasing the organic acreage from which it sources ingredients by 160%, however, data from the US Department of Agriculture shows the demand for organic products continues to outpace the supply of organic ingredients, especially in North America.
In the US, acreage devoted to organic agriculture is about 1% of cropland, it said.
Under the agreement, Gunsmoke Farms will convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland into certified organic acreage and plant 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat.
The survival of pollinators like bumble bees, squash bees, honeybees and butterflies is under threat, placing further strain on the sustainability of the environment.
Out with the old, in with the new
The South Dakota farm – owned by TPG, a privately owned investment company with a long-term capital approach to socially and environmentally beneficial investments – grows wheat for General Mills used in products like Annie’s pasta.
Over the next two years, the farm will phase out conventional wheat crops and replace them with certified organic wheat and other organic rotational crops.
According to John Church, chief supply officer at General Mills, the agreement with Gunsmoke Farms is another step in growing its organic supply chain.
In 2016, General Mills signed an agreement with Organic Valley – the organic cooperative in the US – to help dairy farms convert to organic dairy production.
"We continue to seek ways to partner with land owners to make organic ingredients more accessible for existing and innovative new foods that our consumers have grown to expect,” he said.
General Mills has also collaborated with Midwestern Bio Ag (MBA) to provide hands-on mentorship for Gunsmoke’s operators to adopt regenerative soil management practices such as no till, crop rotation and cover cropping.
Soil health is a growing focus for General Mills.
To-date, it has contributed more than $3m in research and education outreach programs to advance soil health in the US, including The Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the National Wheat Foundation, benefitting around 125,000 farmers in the Great Plains States.
“We crafted a specific rotation and soil-building program to allow this property to be farmed organically at this scale. This involves tools and practices like mixing together wheat and legume crops to build nutrient-dense, carbon-rich soil,” said MBA’s founder Gary Zimmer.
Carla Vernón, president of the Annie's operating unit, added the company is hopeful that regenerative agriculture practices will provide large-scale solutions for restoring healthy soil and a healthy ecosystem.
“Together with growers, we want to revive our ecosystems, reduce levels of global greenhouse gases, and produce food to sustain a growing population for generations to come,” she said.
MBA will also offer skills-based learning programs, which will serve as a regional educational hub for farmers to learn how to implement organic and regenerative agriculture practices.