REED CITY — A pilot project spearheaded by global food processor General Mills Inc. aims to help improve the stability of dairy farms, starting with a trio of West Michigan operations and a focus on regenerative agricultural practices.
Along with Foremost Farms, a milk processing co-op with a cheese plant in Greenville, and consultants at Understanding Ag, General Mills launched a three-year pilot program in regenerative agriculture with Conklin-based Van Oeffelen Dairy, St. Louis-based Mibelloon Dairy southeast of Mt. Pleasant, and Middleville-based Masselink Dairy. The three farms collectively manage 14,000 acres of land.
The program aims to take General Mills’ sourcing commitment one step further with a holistic approach to managing land, cows and manure.
“These dairies are leaders in their community, participating in our commitment to sustainably source 100 percent of our fluid milk by 2020 (end of year), and are now taking the leap from sustainable to regenerative,” Mollie Wulff, a spokesperson for General Mills, said in an email to MiBiz.
A collaborative program with long-time supplier Foremost Farms “served as a launch pad to develop the dairy pilot program,” Wulff said.
Foremost helped Golden Valley, Minn.-based General Mills (NYSE: GIS) identify the three farms, which are within 100 miles of its Yoplait facility in Reed City, about 70 miles north of Grand Rapids.
Regenerative agriculture, or carbon farming, uses a systems approach that incorporates livestock, cover crops, no-till practices and crop diversity to regenerate topsoil, improving water retention.
Advocates say the practices can help with climate resilience and reduce adverse effects of farming such as soil erosion that can lead to pollution in nearby water bodies. According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, increasing the organic matter in soil leads to better water retention, reducing runoff that can lead to pollution.
In turn, that leads to better nutrient cycling for farmers.
“Regenerative farms are better able to manage through times of drought and flooding because their soil can infiltrate and hold more water,” Wulff said. “Also, many regenerative farms are greater insulated from market volatility as they are more diversified in crop and animal system income. Some dairies and ranches have also seen improvements in herd health, enabling greater resilience of animals to disease and extreme elements.”
While acknowledging positive aspects of the practices, some critics contend that the push for regenerative agriculture amounts to greenwashing intended to sell products and one-up other companies’ organic-labeled products, for example.
General Mills touted regenerative agriculture’s resonance with consumers in its announcement of the West Michigan pilot program.
“Consumers increasingly want to support brands and companies they trust are acting as environmental stewards. This pilot with Yoplait is a great example of the role our brands can play in unleashing the scale of our supply chain — supporting farmers, promoting animal welfare, and improving the health of the planet, all while delivering a great-tasting product,” Doug Martin, president of the General Mills U.S. yogurt business, said in a statement.
For its part, General Mills committed last year to sourcing from farms using regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. The company started last year with a pilot program involving oat farmers in North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well as a January 2020 program for wheat farmers in central Kansas.
Moreover, Wulff said the practices learned from these programs can “help farmers reduce input costs while maintaining or improving yield.”
As part of the General Mills pilot program, Understanding Ag consultants meet with the farmers to develop custom management plans for a portion of their operations, which will be monitored for its effects on the soil, biodiversity, water, animal well-being and farm profitability.
In recent years, Michigan’s dairy farmers have felt the squeeze from volatile commodity prices and overproduction, creating an uneconomic market that has farmers hoping just to break even, as MiBiz reported earlier this year.
The ranks of Michigan’s dairy farmers have fallen by a quarter since 2014, the last time they operated in the black, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
To that end, Michigan’s dairies will likely welcome any added boost to their profitability.
“Our goal around sustainability is to measure stewardship and member-owner success so we continually explore partnerships with industry experts and customers,” Greg Schlafer, president and CEO Foremost Farms USA, said in a statement. “The Regenerative Dairy Pilot Program in Michigan gives our farmers the chance to reduce water and wind erosion all while providing top quality feed to their animals. A highly nutritious diet helps ensure healthy, productive cows, which in turn contributes to a stronger bottom line on the farm.”
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