Over the past year, a wave of global food companies have transitioned their focus from sustainable to regenerative agriculture. General Mills—maker of Cheerios cereal, Yoplait yogurt, Nature Valley granola bars and Pillsbury desserts, among its more than 100 brands—has been doing that for years.
For a decade, the Minneapolis-based global consumer packaged goods company has worked with farmers in fields across the U.S. and Canada to source some of its most-needed crops—including corn, dairy, oats, sugar and wheat. It has committed to supporting farmers on 1 million acres by 2030 in their adoption of more regenerative practices.
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During the first several years, the company emphasized on-farm environmental stewardship, continuous improvement and measurement outcomes, Jay Watson says. The General Mills team member has spent over a decade at the company and joined its sustainability team in 2017, becoming its sourcing sustainability engagement manager. Since then, the company has fully pivoted to regenerative agriculture because it emphasizes the economic and environmental resiliency for farmers and their communities—a more inclusive and -oriented approach that the term “sustainability” doesn’t fully capture.
“When you have a program that’s focused on per-unit productivity, efficiency metrics and yield, it really doesn’t tell the whole story,” Watson says.
Nate Birt, with Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative, sat down with Watson for the first of a three-part series highlighting practical lessons U.S. farmers can learn—and apply to their own operations—based on the experiences of pilot program participants working with expert technical assistance providers and researchers.
What are the biggest regenerative agriculture learnings farmers can apply to their own operations, based on your experience?
We need levers to drive change. One lever is soil health. If we’re worried about farm profitability, erosion, nutrient-use efficiency, energy usage, and reducing tillage, soil health became this beacon. Former Chief Sustainability Officer Jerry Lynch was the early thought leader on soil health at General Mills and within the industry. We started investing in the Soil Health Partnership, Soil Health Institute, and The Nature Conservancy, which developed the Soil Health Roadmap. We believe soil health serves as the foundation for regenerative agriculture.
It’s about ecosystem health – we are bringing in biodiversity, water and farmer profitability.
Certain things mess up sustainability metrics for farmers like drought and too much water. There have been many examples of this recently. In North Dakota’s Red River Valley in 2019, some sugar beet growers didn’t harvest any acres. When you have no denominator, the metrics don’t look very good. We need to focus more on profit, not yield. There is so much focus on production, not profitability. We have the opportunity with regenerative agriculture to highlight that. A focus on profit is core to how most businesses run. They don’t only focus on gross revenue.
We need continuous improvement and to document natural resource efficiency over time. That’s a great on ramp for some producers to look into soil health, and to use precision ag to pick spots in field that are not productive. It’s a different management approach and mindset. Precision conservation management can be a steppingstone to soil health and regenerative agriculture.
No two farms or producers are alike. All farmers are at different points of the journey. We want to be catalysts for as many producers as possible. We need to produce food, fuel and fiber but at same time, how do we make ecosystems more resilient, more productive and more profitable for the farmer along the way? How do we create greater economic resiliency, not only for the farmer but also for the farming community?
We don’t just have to keep doing what we have always done in agriculture. There are lots of challenges we have in ag, and we don’t want to sustain those. The real path to true sustainability is to invest in the resiliency and function of these systems while you produce food. It’s hard to explain to some stakeholders who ask, ‘Is this the new organic?’ It’s not as much an evolution but a reinforcement of one of our guiding principles, which is a focus on outcomes.
We need to measure and share the ‘So what?’ It’s not just practices but the impact of a change in practice, and more likely multiple practice changes happening at once. We understand and appreciate that practices are context-specific. One practice that works here might not be what works in another part of country or even the same county.
We intentionally keep practices vague and instead focus on principles and outcomes. Principles are universal and can apply to both organic and conventional systems.
We need to talk about what is regenerating, with robust science, outcomes, measurement and verification.
What have you learned about how farmers change their minds and become more open to trying regenerative agriculture practices?
Some of the biggest insights so far—and maybe confirmation of our point of view and strategy—are the core elements of technical assistance, training and education of our pilots. We see that working, more so for some producers versus others.
The way we’ve built our pilot programs is deep training via Soil Health Academy, one of Gabe Brown’s organizations—where farmers learn about regenerative management and soil, and how the broader ecosystem should function. They also hear from local producers who are finding success in this area.
We follow the in-depth training with 1:1 coaching for participants who opt into our program. The coach works with the farmer to develop an individualized plan that works for the unique operation. Instead of a prescriptive approach, it’s ‘Tell me about your operation. Based on what you know about soil health principles and regenerative agriculture, what might you think you would want to try?’ Coaches play a resourcing role instead of telling the participant what to do.
A lot of farmers just want the answer: ‘Tell me what the recipe is.’ That’s not the approach of a regenerative mindset. Rather, it’s a go and observe, gain an understanding of your operation and apply principles you think make sense. We’re investing in the capability and capacity of producers to think regeneratively and at some point, they take over completely. We’re hopeful that when the pilot programs are completed, the producers will see their operations differently. They might need support, but rather than leaning on their coaches, they can look to other leading farmers in their area for support.
We believe this technical assistance component is critical. Many farmers have taken advantage of government cost-share programs, but we haven’t seen significant adoption of regenerative agriculture just because that’s just one element of the approach to supporting farmers. We believe a holistic surround of social and cultural support, technical support and financial support will give us a greater chance of long-term success where more farmers stick with those practices after the money dries up because they understand the principles and how to adapt them to their unique context.
How will General Mills scale its work with farmers participating in these three-year pilots?
We hope to scale our work and greater adoption to the extent we can bring this holistic approach to engage as many farmers as possible. Some farmers may only need cost-share. For others, they may only engage once they’re able to see a case study on economics. And some are ready to jump in, but really need a community to lean on in the early years.
We are exploring how we pull together technical, social, financial, and scientific measurement support, all within a learning cohort to accelerate local know-how. It might not be General Mills completely funding or leading all elements, but rather a constellation of partners who come together to provide holistic support for the producer.
Our pilots are effective now, but it’s not scalable to parachute our team of experts into every region that we source key ingredients. We need to build local capacity to support this long-term. That’s one of our strategies—to find conservation partners, grower groups, university Extension programs, suppliers, and research organizations that we can bring along in the process. Our coaching and training partners have no problem with a train-the-trainer approach. None of us intend to be the expert in these places forever. They are truly pilots, so we are investing to drive change but also in local capability and self-sufficiency.
We can connect and convene. That’s a key role we think we can play at General Mills.
Why is General Mills interested in reaching farmers beyond its supply chain with the benefits of regenerative agriculture?
We’re interested in reaching farmers within and outside of our supply chain because it’s the right thing to do. We realize we have a role to play to set this shift of mindset in motion. We think some of that leadership role can be impacting farms, acres and communities that maybe are more closely aligned to other supply chains than ours and we don’t want to miss an opportunity to support an interested farmer and drive more widespread impact.
Another learning from our sustainable sourcing journey for our 10 priority commodity categories is that we need to understand the whole system. Some of these producers may grow for us one year and not the next year. We’re providing a flexible program that is inclusive. What we’re trying to do is really accelerate the know-how in a place, and if we have willing participants that are in the region that don’t connect to our supply chain, that’s OK. Those producers are and can be change agents in their communities that could potentially impact other farms more closely connected to our supply chain over time.