Converting a farm to organic culture may seem like a daunting challenge, with all the standards and paperwork that must be dealt with. Weed control is only getting more difficult, but if you’re no-tilling you don’t want to break out the plow.

But no-tilling organically on a large scale hasn’t scared away General Mills. This week, the company announced it will convert 34,000 acres near Pierre, S.D., to organic practices by 2020 as the company works to secure enough organic ingredients to meet growing consumer demand worldwide.

General Mills, which is guaranteeing a market for the wheat, is working with Madison, Wis.- based Midwestern BioAg to develop the crop rotation and soil-building program needed for such a large farm to go organic.

"We’re kind of obsessed with soil," Carla Vernon, president of General Mills' Annie's unit in Berkeley, Calif., told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement. “And that’s because we know the power of soil is big.”

General Mills, like many other food companies, has ambitious environmental goals, and like other big industry players it has bought smaller brands and tweaked its own products to appeal to consumers who want more organic and natural products. The company wants to double its organic acreage by 2020 and to cut greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2025 throughout its supply chain all the way down to consumers.

The pace of these partnerships evolving to meet the demands of the world’s food system seems to be quickening of late:

  • Dr. Bronner, The Rodale Institute and others have developed a new standard for food and agriculture production — Regenerative Organic Certification — “in order to model an ecological and ethical system that addresses the problems of factory farming, climate change and economic justice, both locally and globally.”
  • The Carbon Underground and Green America, in partnership with Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), DanoneWave, Annie’s (General Mills), and MegaFood have begun development of a global verification standard for food grown in a regenerative manner. The standard encourages farmers to restore the carbon cycle and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. This builds on a regenerative agriculture definition created in 2017 by the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, which includes over 150 companies, organizations and scientists as signatories.
  • A national coalition convened by the Noble Research Institute announced in February it would create a new voluntary environmental services market to incentivize farmers and ranchers to improve soil health on working agriculture lands through the development of a market-based platform. The marketplace steering committee includes representatives from the Noble Research Institute, General Mills, the Soil Health Institute, NewtrientNational Association of Conservation Districts, Gordian Knot Strategies, DRD AssociatesStrategic Conservation Solutions and Oklahoma and Texas farming/ranching communities.

General Mills believes climate change will be bad for business. The company's chief sustainability officer, Jerry Lynch, says General Mills is pilot-testing the same regenerative practices at several sites.

At Gunsmoke Farms in South Dakota the company will measure results in sequestering carbon in the soil, increasing biodiversity on the landscape and bringing socio-economic benefits to local communities.

Gunsmoke Farms will also carve out around 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat in cooperation with the Portland, Ore.-based Xerces Society. General Mills and Xerces announced a partnership in 2016 to add more than 100,000 acres of bee and butterfly habitat on or near existing crop lands.

General Mills bought Annie's in 2014 for $820 million. While Gunsmoke Farms will become a huge supplier, the company pointed out that Annie's also works with small farms, as it’s partnering now with two farmers in Montana who use regenerative practices to roll out single-source, limited-edition organic macaroni and cheese and bunny graham crackers this month.

Gunsmoke Farms is owned by San Francisco-based TPG, a private global investment company with an interest in sustainability. TPG bought the farm recently from Fargo, N.D.-based R.D. Offutt Co., which used the land primarily to grow conventional wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers. Midwestern BioAg will work with local managers on the three-year process of converting the land to organic.

Gary Zimmer, founder of Midwestern BioAg, says the land at Gunsmoke Farms needs natural waterways re-established, as well as cover crops, no-till practices and trace minerals.

Since the area is fairly dry, he says, it needs deeply rooted plants to trap rainwater and to build up organic matter in the soil. The crop rotation will include legumes such as peas, clover and alfalfa, which add nitrogen to fertilize the soil.

At a time when traditional markets for small grains are stagnant at best, no-tillers need to keep abreast of these new coalitions forming.

Aligning your farm with a corporation’s global objectives might seem a little scary, but it could also be an opportunity to capitalize on the soil-saving benefits you’ve accrued through implementing a no-till system.