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General Mills launches regenerative agriculture pilot with Kansas wheat farmers

Program aims to advance adoption of regenerative agriculture practices and improve overall water quality in key watershed.

General Mills is launching a regenerative agriculture pilot with farmers in Kansas’ Cheney Reservoir watershed that provides water to more than 400,000 Wichita residents.

The company targeted this watershed in conjunction with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to improve water quality as part of the statewide Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy. The three-year pilot is comprised of 24 wheat growers in and around the 650,000-acre watershed where more than 99% of the land is used for agricultural purposes.

“This pilot is an important step in our commitment to advance regenerative practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030, but more so supports our belief that these practices can have long-term positive impact on farmer profitability, soil health, water quality, and biodiversity,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills, in a General Mills news release. “We’re energized to be working alongside committed organizations like the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Understanding Ag to help us embark on this important work.”

General Mills officials say 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. This helps the land be more resilient to extreme weather events. 

Regenerative agriculture practices also help increase water infiltration and reduce soil erosion. This has been shown to positively impact the quality of nearby lakes, rivers, and streams. These benefits can help farmers’ pocketbooks by ensuring that more nutrients stay in the field to be absorbed by plants, rather than washed or blown away through soil erosion. 

General Mills officials say this step builds upon the company’s commitment to improve soil health and to reduce its absolute GHG emissions by 28% across its full value chain by 2025. General Mills is supporting the rapid advancement in adoption of regenerative agriculture practices and is partnering with suppliers like Paterson Grain and Archer Daniels Midland across key ingredient categories and regions. In March 2019, the company launched a Regenerative Oat Pilot consisting of 45 farmers across North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba representing more than 50,000 acres of farmland and will measure the environmental and economic outcomes over the duration of the three-year program.

“The goal of the pilot program is to encourage farming practices that improve both soil health and water quality in the Cheney Reservoir region such that agriculture is the solution to a more resilient and clean water supply for Wichita residents,” said Leo Henning, deputy secretary of the division of environment at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, in a General Mills news release. “We believe regenerative agriculture can improve the quality of this vital water source, and if we are successful, it’s a win-win-win for farmers, communities and the environment.”

The 24 growers were selected from a group of more than 150 participants who attended one of two, two-day Soil Health Academies in early November. The Understanding Agconsultants are meeting individually with each pilot participant to co-develop and implement regenerative management plans.

By convening and connecting a network of farmers throughout the region, all of whom are evolving farm practices to align with a regenerative mindset, the hope is to rapidly accelerate regionally specific learnings that can be shared broadly. Participating farmers will have access to continuing education via the Soil Health Academy, farmer-focused field days, and a private Facebook group to encourage ongoing exchange of ideas and best practices. 

"The project represents an enormous opportunity to demonstrate the many on- and off-farm benefits of regenerative agriculture in wheat production, including increased farm profitability, improved resiliency, and enhanced biodiversity," said Gabe Brown, a Bismarck, North Dakota, farmer and Understanding Ag cofounder and farmer, in a General Mills news release. "Thanks to this partnership, UA's regenerative-farmer consultants will work to ensure the successful and profitable adoption of critical soil health-improving practices on these farms."

To provide another pathway for experimentation, an additional 18 growers in Kansas will receive support to enroll in the Soil Health Partnership Associate Program to study outcomes of reduced or no tillage, and cover cropping. 

The collaborating partners intend to align soil carbon and water-quality measurement protocols with those being developed by the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. This is a member-based industry collaborative focused on launching a national scale ecosystems services market for agriculture to recognize and reward farmers and ranchers for their environmental services to society. As part of the pilot, participants who opt into data tracking and field measurements will be some of the first in the country to be paid for sequestering carbon or improving water quality.

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