This article series is sponsored by General Mills and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Can macaroni and cheese really revolutionize farming? What about beef jerky or frozen peas? If they are the result of brands combining their resources to promote regenerative agricultural practices, the answer could be yes.
What is regenerative agriculture? Regenerative agriculture is a holistic method of farming deploying practices designed to protect and intentionally enhance natural resources and farming communities. These practices focus on pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the soil in addition to helping the land be more resilient to extreme weather events. Methods include no-till, cover cropping, crop diversity, integrating livestock and maintaining a living root year-round.
Inspired by its natural and organic brands—such as Cascadian Farm, EPIC and Annie’s — General Mills is working to advance the adoption of regenerative farming, literally starting from the ground up. “We are out to serve the world by making food people love. And great food starts with healthy soil,” Jerry Lynch, General Mills’ chief sustainability officer, wrote in this series on TriplePundit last year.
Cascadian Farm joined General Mills’ portfolio in 2000. Not only was it one of the first organic brands in the company (along with Muir Glen), but its founder, Gene Kahn, was a pioneer of the modern organic farming movement of the 1970s. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Kahn started an organic farm in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, specifically focusing on the quality of his soil and protecting nearby waterways.
“Cascadian Farm continues to inspire General Mills today—advancing the values and agricultural practices the brand was founded on, both on our active home farm and throughout the General Mills portfolio as we work to advance regenerative agriculture beyond our organic brands,” Danielle Andrews, senior manager on General Mills’ global sustainability team, told TriplePundit.
One recent example of this alignment is Cascadian Farm’s partnership with the Land Institute to commercialize Kernza. Kernza is a perennial grain whose 10-foot-long roots are able to capture carbon and water, while preventing soil erosion. In addition, General Mills contributed half a million dollars to the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota to advance research on Kernza and its benefits.
Regenerative farming practices include animals as well as crops. EPIC, which joined General Mills in 2016, specializes in meat products that are not only sustainably sourced, but also strengthen the land from which they come. EPIC’s work promotes the use of ruminants, or grazing animals such as buffalo, cattle and goats, whose stomachs ferment plants and in turn provide rich fertilizer to restore nutrients to the land.
“By simulating the natural movement of animal herds through planned rotational grazing patterns and unleashing the power of ruminants to promote naturally thriving ecosystems, regenerative agriculture can heal previously damaged lands,” Katie Forrest, co-founder and owner of EPIC, wrote in Modern Farmer. “Even more importantly, it can reverse previous destruction to our atmosphere. That’s because healthy grasses from holistically managed lands remove carbon dioxide from our air and put it back where it belongs: the soil.”
Annie’s joined General Mills in 2014, after 25 years of making responsibly-sourced macaroni and cheese, snacks, soups, condiments and more. Throughout its history, customers have recognized Annie’s most popular products through the brightly-colored packaging featuring Bernie the Bunny.
General Mills used consumers’ relationship to Annie’s distinctive packaging to spread the word about regenerative farming practices in an innovative campaign last year.
Annie’s partnered with two Montana farmers to grow the grain needed for two limited-edition organic products: Honey Bunny Grahams crackers and Elbow Pasta and Cheddar mac and cheese. The packages listed the farmers’ names, location and specific crops used to make the product. The boxes also included information on “why soil matters” and what regenerative farming is. In addition, Annie’s released a mini-documentary online entitled “Our Food Choices Matter,” further explaining the role of soil in sustainable food production.
“Consumers want to know they are making the best choices for their families and want their everyday actions to have a positive impact on the environment,” Andrews told us. “With projects like this, we’re doing the work to partner with our suppliers and farmers on their behalf and their food choices are making a difference.”
Andrews noted that the results from Annie’s limited-edition packaging campaign were greatly encouraging. “When you start educating consumers that soil and farmland are finite resources, they begin to better understand why the principles of regenerative agriculture are so important,” she explained.
General Mills will continue advocating the importance of healthy soil and sustainable farming practices as an exhibitor at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, this week. In addition, this spring General Mills will begin a pilot program with oat farmers to enhance regenerative agricultural production in the regions they source their oats for Cheerios, Nature Valley, Annie’s and Cascadian Farm.
With the acquisitions of the aforementioned natural and organic brands, General Mills is now able to make larger-scale moves to improve farming of ingredients across its portfolio, and for American agriculture as a whole.
This influence is best exemplified in the 2018 announcement of the Gunsmoke Farms project. General Mills will convert 34,000 acres in South Dakota from conventional to certified organic farmland by 2020. This will be one of the largest contiguous organic farms in the United States, covering 53 square miles, reports the Star Tribune. The land will first be used to train farmers on regenerative farming practices and to grow wheat for Annie’s products. Through projects like these, General Mills is committed to advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, the company announced this week.
“At General Mills, we take the outputs Mother Nature and farming communities give us and transform them into delicious, nutritious products for our consumers. If the front end (nature) is not working well, our entire business model breaks down,” Andrews concluded. “It’s exciting to know that because of the breadth of our portfolio of brands, we can make a significant impact that will benefit so much farmland, creating an incredibly positive impact on our people and our planet."
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