Large South Dakota organic farm faces criticism over soil erosion, poor management
Published: June 9, 2021
Category: Organic News
A 34,000-acre organic farm in South Dakota that supplies organic grains to General Mills has been criticized for soil erosion due to tillage and failure to follow recommendations for soil conservation.
In 2018, General Mills engaged in a strategic sourcing arrangement with an investment firm to transition Gunsmoke Farms near Pierre, South Dakota to organic. The agreement stated the company would partner with Gunsmoke Farms to invest in the transition and then source organic wheat from 10,000 acres for its Annie’s Mac & Cheese pasta products. The farm was certified organic last fall.
During the three-year transition, farm managers grew alfalfa, which doesn’t require annual planting. Last year, they planted their first crops of wheat and peas, which required plowing the huge fields. Winter wheat was planted to protect the soil but it didn’t grow well.
Dwayne Beck, a soil scientist who manages South Dakota State University’s Dakota Lakes Research Station, saw problems as the tillage loosened the soil and wind blew it away. He took photographs of wind-blown soil in a roadside ditch and a country road covered in a brown cloud of blowing dust.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Beck said: “The soil that blew out of there, it will never be the same as it was before it blew.”
Beck said the soils on the vast farm are fragile and tilling just exacerbates the problem.
The soil in the area is full of clay and vulnerable to rain and wind that carry it away. “Once you disturb it, nothing holds that soil together. It just turns into powder,” Beck said.
The farm managers did not follow recommendations of an expert from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service who designed a soil conservation plan for the farm. The plan called for plantings of strips of native grasses across the farm to help prevent soil from blowing away, and for continuous cover with crops such as alfalfa.
The farm managers also didn’t follow the advice of Gary Zimmer, an expert on organic farming, who also created a plan that incorporated many of the same measures. Zimmer said the farm is “in a deep hole.”
“I don’t know how you get it back out organically. It’s hard to farm organically if you do it really well, and have your intensive management. But 30,000 acres, poorly managed, is a really good sign for failure.”
Gunsmoke Farms is owned by an investment firm called TPG Sixth Street Partners, which had signed the sourcing agreement with General Mills. Sixth Street has hired a series of managers to run the farm—poorly it appears.
General Mills told NRP in a statement that transforming Gunsmoke Farms into a thriving ecologically sound organic farm “is a journey” and that the company is committed to minimizing erosion and building soil health on the farm.
Source: National Public Radio
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Organic & Non-GMO Insights June 2021