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General Mills Joins the Push for More Organic Food Production

By Jan Lee

General Mills is making more room for organic farming – 34,000 acres of room to start.

This March, the company that is best known for its cereal products like Cheerios, Wheaties and Kix announced that it would be creating its own line of transitional farming, in which conventional farming acreage is gradually converted to certified organic crops. During the transitional period, the company says it will use the crops to produce cereals and other foods under a “transitional label.”

The concept of transitional farming isn’t exactly new. Other organic producers like Lundberg Farms, best known for its organic rice products, had used transitional acreage to expand its organic options. And last February, General Mills’ competitor, Kelloggs, announced it was releasing its first transitional farming product under the Kashi label. The company says it is also working to develop more organic farms in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1 percent of commercial farms in the U.S. are certified organic. Large producers like General Mills are finding that’s not enough to supply the grain that is needed for their higher-tier organic labels, for which producers can generally command a better price.

Encouraging farmers to transition to organic has been challenging in recent years. Kashi says it’s because of the three-year process, for which farmers often feel they aren’t being compensated for.

But Robert Arnason, a writer for the Canadian ag publication Western Producer, has tracked the problem and notes that recessions can have a discouraging impact on organic farmers. Recessions, like the 2008 housing crash, cause consumers to tighten their belts, and organic choices can be one of the “luxuries” to be left out of the shopping basket. For small farmers counting on higher profits to offset their lengthy transition period, the downturn can be disastrous.

General Mills’ approach to developing more organic acreage may provide a bit more buffer against stock market catastrophes. Rather than relying on lots of little farms, some of which may have narrow profits margins, the corporation has turned to larger farms that can open up a bigger swath of acreage and may have the capital to sustain an unexpected hiccup.

For the newest investment, General Mills has turned to Gunsmoke Farms in South Dakota to develop organic crop for its Annie’s brand. The 31,000-acre farm was started by RD Offutt in 2012 and has been a main producer of conventional wheat. It isn’t clear where the other 3,000 acres will be established, but a section of the acreage about that size will also be set aside to grow pollinator habitat with the help of Xeres Society. The habitat helps to guard against erosion, provide cover crops and other foliage necessary in organic agriculture.

According to General Mills’ March 2018 press release, the 34,000 acres will be converted "to certified organic acreage by 2020." This leaves a niggling question for organic consumers: According to the USDA, it takes three full years to properly transition conventional acreage to organic. Did the company actually start the transition process a year earlier? Perhaps it means that certification will start in 2019? Or does the farm have ambitious hopes to transition the acreage ahead of standard 3-year processes?

General Mills hasn’t explained the methodology. But it does have a track record for building successful organic brands, including Muir Glen foods and Liberte dairy products. And it has a well-honed experience doing business with large and small organizations that are more than willing to help expand crops for North America’s insatiable organic appetite.

This latest effort to expand North America's cache of certified organic farms will dovetail with General Mills' newest plans to create new consumer-friendly methods to show it is being more transparent in its sourcing methods, as well as to highlight the small players that have helped to build General Mills' growing line of organic and transitional products.

Flickr images: Charles Knowles; Julie Magro

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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