General Mills announced a deal Tuesday to create South Dakota's largest organic crop farm as the company works to secure enough organic ingredients to meet growing consumer demand worldwide.
Gunsmoke Farms will convert 34,000 acres — more than 53 square miles — near Pierre to organic by 2020, where it will grow organic wheat for General Mills' popular Annie's Macaroni & Cheese line.
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. "And that's because we know the power of soil is big."
Golden Valley-based 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 percent by 2025 throughout its supply chain all the way down to consumers, because it believes climate change will be bad for business.
The company's chief sustainability officer, Jerry Lynch, said it's on pace to meet its organic acreage goal well ahead of schedule.
Lynch said the project is one of several sites where General Mills is pilot-testing the same regenerative practices. 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 about 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.
Gunsmoke Farms is owned by San Francisco-based TPG, a private global investment company with an interest in sustainability. Midwestern BioAg will work with local managers on the three-year process of converting the land to organic.
"I think everybody's going to be watching it, so we have to make sure we do a lot of things right," said Gary Zimmer, founder of Midwestern BioAg.