Multinational food giant General Mills, perhaps best known for its Cheerios brand of breakfast cereal, announced earlier this month that it will be transitioning 53 square miles of farmland in South Dakota to qualify for the USDA certified organic label.
The move is a partnership with Midwestern BioAg, a company that works to help farms transition from conventional agriculture to organic — a process that takes a minimum of three years.
Gunsmoke Farms, the farm that General Mills is hoping will boosts its ability to take a chunk of the booming organic market, sits on 34,000 acres, and grows wheat, a staple crop in the region.
“The Gunsmoke project is an opportunity to use our scale to help convert large areas of acreage to organic as one of our tools to create a more stable supply chain,” Beth Robertson-Martin, organic sourcing lead at General Mills, told the New Food Economy. “We also see it as a way to support our growing portfolio of organic businesses.”
When complete, Gunsmoke Farms will be one of the nation’s largest organic growers. “The scale suggests a sea change for organics,” writes Amy Halloran in the New Food Economy. “A household brand is holding hands with the land, showing the story of what it takes to get organic macaroni from field to box. The effort is not just logistical, but promotional—an opportunity to engage customers in discussion about farming practices.”
This will not be General Mills’ first foray into organics; the company owns three of the biggest producers in the organic market — Cascadian Farms, Muir Glen, and Annie’s Organics. But part of the reason General Mills hasn’t launched organic versions of products from its best-selling brands — Betty Crocker, Nature Valley, Yoplait, to name a few — is, more than anything, a supply issue.
“Our domestic organic production isn’t going up fast enough,” says John Mesko, director of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES), a non-profit organic advocate and education center.
“To bring people into organics we need mentors, people nearby who can come out to the field and answer questions,” Mesko says.
Companies like Kashi and third-party certifying agent QAI have begun working with companies transitioning to organic — an interim label of sorts that can help the brands charge a premium for products on their way to organic. But for mainstream brands to meet the demand for organic there needs to be a steady and reliable supply of organic ingredients. Imports have proven risky, with cases of international fraud on the rise; and brands can quickly lose shelf space to competitors who don’t have supply issues if they launch too soon without securing a supply chain.
“Normalizing organic farming within more farming communities is another benefit of General Mills’s plan,” writes Halloran.
“After all, the conventional farming model works like a recipe on most any farm; create a blank slate for planting, apply X to seeds and Y to plants, and harvest,” she says. “In organics, every farm is treated like its own ecosystem. But the Gunsmoke project is a reminder that even the very biggest farms can do it.”
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