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Farm Byline: December 2020

Regenerative ag and the future of Cheerios

by Al Gustin


The lettering on a rather large cardboard box of frozen pork loins said “Smithfield – Good Food Responsibly.” It was evidence that more and more large food companies are making the claim that their products were responsibly, or sustainably, grown. Research has found that consumers want that.

This past harvest season, we visited with a northern North Dakota farmer as he was combining oats. But it wasn’t just another oat field. General Mills has targeted that field – and fields of almost 50 other farmers in North Dakota, Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Minnesota-based international food company has been buying oats from that farmer for several years. But this is much more than just source identification. It’s about regenerative agriculture.

General Mills has hired consultants who work directly with those producers. The consultants do comprehensive soil tests, document soil carbon levels and do insect inventories. Then they work with the farmers to build soil health through the use of cover crops, crop rotation and integrated crop-livestock systems.

A consultant told me, “General Mills realized that if they were to get a consistent supply of high-quality grain, they needed to make sure farms and ranches were profitable, and the quality part relates back to the health of the soil.”

General Mills’ mission statement says, in part, “We are on a journey to make a meaningful difference through regenerative agriculture.” A spokesperson for General Mills says, “We made a commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.”

The farmer we interviewed said, “They looked out 100 years and said if General Mills is going to continue to sustainably source its grain products from up here, they need to be concerned about the soil.”

Some producers might cringe at the thought of a big corporation telling them what to grow and how. But if efforts like regenerative ag mean soils will remain productive 100 years from now, not only will the food companies have a future, so will the great-grandchildren of those farming the land today.

Al Gustin is a retired farm broadcaster, active rancher and a member of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative.