Kansas farmers near Cheney Reservoir selected for national three-year pilot project.
A major food corporation selected Kansas wheat as the best in the nation for a three-year pilot project. The restorative farming project will discover ways farmers can save water, increase soil health and decrease carbon footprints.
General Mills, with the help of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, selected the 650,000-acre Cheney Reservoir region as the project's location.
This region includes farms in five counties – Kiowa, Reno, Pratt, Kingman and Stafford. Water from the reservoir where the runoff from these farms goes is used by residents of Wichita. By way of application, 24 farmers were chosen for this pilot project.
“They saw we were already doing some of this. It’s an opportunity to put additional resources in there and get everything snowballing,” said Lisa French, project director for the Cheney Lake Watershed. “This has an impact in making the farms more profitable and more resilient, and in turn, makes our farming communities more resilient.”
This impact-based agricultural program will pay farmers for increased soil carbon, reduced greenhouse gases, and improved water quantity and water use efficiency. This is part of General Mill’s regenerative agriculture program. By not using century-old farming methods of tilling each field, pulling out the nutrients from the earth and then adding fertilizer, this model leaves living roots in the ground 365 days a year, creating less soil erosion, less chemical use and higher nutrient crop value. But for farmers, the practice takes time and a lot of initial work.
Using Regenerative Practices
Chad Basinger of Pretty Prairie, Kansas has used regenerative practices for more than five years. But, although he and his wife Cassondra believe in the practice, they feel they need to learn more and become “all-in.” Along with not tilling several of his fields, five years ago, Basinger introduced cover crops – cowpeas, flax and turnips. These crops have helped him find good forage for his cattle operation, as well as increase the permeability of his soil.
“We’ve seen the organic matter improve. Our soil will hold more water, so we can weather some of the droughts and store more rain,” Basinger said.
Basinger feels that it is important for farmers to work alongside the environment and not fight it. He hopes through this study he will incorporate more regenerative farming methods.
“We want to keep the life cycle continually growing,” Basinger said. “If we can make more money by the way we farm, regeneratively and sustainably, that’s part of the payoff.”
Helping farmers understand the benefits of regenerative farming is the goal of this project.
“This unprecedented pilot is a leading example of public and private sectors coming together to quantify environmental improvements and compensate farmers for implementing soil health and regenerative practices on their operations,” said Mary Jane Melendez, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer at General Mills. “We must demonstrate not only meaningful and measurable environmental benefits to communities at large, but economic benefit to farmers as well.”
General Mills has partnered with consultants from Understanding Ag who will work with producers to identify and implement changes to their farming. Understanding Ag’s farm advisors will also collect the information needed to verify changes.
Calculating the Benefits
Jason Hildebrand, a farmer from Stafford, Kansas, who will be part of the study, has seen his cattle herd increase due to some of the regenerative practices he implemented during the last three years. Although Hildebrand has used some no-tillage and cover crops on his farm, he said this project will help him understand the benefits.
“I think the soil is getting better, but I have not done a good job of soil testing,” Hildebrand said. “They’re going to do that. That will leave me time to do what I do best – farm.”
ESMC will generate certified credits based on actual impacts upon the environment. This consortium is launching more pilots this winter and spring in the Midwestern corn and soy region. By 2030, the ESMC seeks to enroll 30% of available working lands in the top four crop regions and top four pasture regions of the U.S., impacting more than 250 million acres of land.
“This project will result in real, quantified reductions of GHG emissions and nutrient loading to surface water, while also providing key insights to attain efficiency and scale,” said Debbie Reed, ESMC Executive Director.
Jamie Funke, a farmer in Partridge, Kansas, is happy to be on board. Having practiced regenerative practices for more than five years, he said his fields “look like trash.” With sunflowers, xenias, cowpeas, buckwheat and radishes growing on his fields, it’s hard to see the soybeans.
“Two years ago, some of those plants got over eight feet tall. You could get lost in there,” Funke said. “It made wonderful cover.”
Funke hopes this project will help convince consumers to research where their food is coming from.
“This regenerative agriculture movement is moving toward more of a biological approach in where you’re trying to coax nature to work with you,” Funke said. “Before, you were trying to force nature to do what you want done with chemicals.”
By having their land become resilient to extreme weather conditions, farmers are able to weather the storms and droughts.
“We’ve changed the way people think; the way they manage their land,” said Howard Miller, outreach coordinator for the Cheney Lake Watershed. “Soil that is anchored in a living root does not enter the stream. It stays in the landscape.”
Helping the Environment
General Mills will utilize GHG improvements in their sustainability reporting, and KDHE will identify buyers who seek certified water quality benefits that participating farmers achieve. Along with improving soil health and grain nutrition, the cereal manufacturer hopes to reduce its GHG emissions by 28% by 2025. Last March, the company launched an oat initiative in Canada and northern North Dakota.
“The goal of the pilot program is to encourage farming practices that improve both soil health and water quality in the Cheney Reservoir region such that agriculture is the solution to a more resilient and clean water supply for Wichita residents,” said Leo Henning, Deputy Secretary of the Division of Environment at KDHE. “We believe regenerative agriculture can improve the quality of this vital water source and if we are successful, it’s win-win-win, for farmers, communities and the environment.”
By demonstrating a profitable model, General Mills and Understanding Ag hope to lead the way into more environmentally friendly farmland. By using these techniques, farmers will increase biodiversity and lesson floods and runoff on their land.
“If we can prove we can grow better crops cheaper, that’s what’s going to change things,” Funke said. “I think General Mills is trying to do the right thing. They need more high-quality grain.”