On a box of macaroni and cheese that will launch this month, the name of the farmer who grew the wheat used to make the pasta–Nate Powell-Palm, who has a farm outside Bozeman, Montana–is printed on the front. The manufacturer, Annie’s, Inc., wanted to highlight the fact that Powell-Palm is using regenerative farming practices, a series of steps that go farther than what’s required for an organic label–and that could help fight climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil.
“I think that’s a first in the industry: to offer a product on such wide distribution, available from a major manufacturer in the center of the store, where the family that’s about to enjoy the product can name the farmer, name the farm, and know the ingredients that are specific in that product that are using these very Earth-friendly practices,” says Carla Vernon, president of Annie’s.
The brand, which was purchased by General Mills in 2014, is already known for using organic ingredients. But it wanted to go further: Regeneratively farmed ingredients are farmed with a more holistic set of practices that can promote soil health, increase biodiversity, and pull carbon from the air.
On the Montana farm, Powell-Palm rotates his wheat crop with golden peas, which are also used to make the flour for the pasta, boosting the protein content. A diversity of crops makes the soil healthier than just growing wheat; wheat takes nitrogen from the soil, and peas help replenish it. Livestock also graze in the field on rotation, adding more nutrients to the soil with manure. The farm also uses cover crops rather than letting the soil sit bare after harvest, so the roots of the plants help hold carbon in the soil.
The practices used in regenerative farming aren’t new, but many are less common now than they were in the past. Cover crops, for example, are in use on less than 2% of total cropland, according to a 2015 report. Even when farms use some individual practices, the comprehensive approach of resilient agriculture, which balances the goals of productivity and farmer resilience with ecosystem health, isn’t standard in industrial agriculture today.
Annie’s will sell the mac and cheese as a limited edition product at the Sprouts chain of supermarkets this spring–only offering as much as was possible to produce with the yield from the Montana farm. It’s also selling a regenerative agriculture version of one of its snacks, “Organic Bunny Grahams,” bunny-shaped cookies made with wheat and oats from Casey Bailey, a farmer who works near the small Montana town of Fort Benton. But the brand sees the first two products as proofs of concept for its larger vision to scale regeneratively farmed ingredients across its business.
The two Montana farmers are both leaders in regenerative agriculture. Annie’s, working with General Mills, has a scorecard of best regenerative practices that it can now use with farmers to identify others who are making the most progress, and to help farmers identify how they can improve. The company is also working with farmers and agricultural organizations to help them join the effort; in South Dakota, General Mills is helping farmers convert thousands of acres from conventional farmland to organic and incorporate regenerative practices like crop rotations and cover cropping. The wheat produced will be used in Annie’s pasta products.
“Farmers are anywhere on a spectrum of their interest and readiness,” says Vernon. “But we’re trying to make sure that we also take time to understand what farmers need and where farmers are coming from, and what might be some of the barriers that make it difficult for farmers to move in this direction, and figure out if there is a way that with better understanding and better partnership, Annie’s can help to reduce those barriers, to remove those barriers entirely.” For farms that aren’t yet organic, for example, which have to go through a three-year transition period before they can be certified organic and sell crops for a premium, General Mills can support the transition by using the crops during the transition period in other brands that don’t yet use organic ingredients.
General Mills made an ambitious commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 28%, from 2015 to 2025, in line with the current science on climate change. Regenerative agriculture–which holds the promise to not just reduce emissions, but reverse them–can be one piece of that, beginning with products like the two limited-edition offerings. “Annie’s can actually create activities and products that can boil those big goals down into something that people can really see as specific and see as achievable,” says Vernon.
It’s part of growing interest in regenerative agriculture from many companies. Patagonia’s food brand, Patagonia Provisions, launched a beer made with Kernza, a grain that helps sequester carbon with its unusually long roots. Cascadian Farm, another General Mills brand, also wants to incorporate Kernza into cereals and snacks. The North Face launched a “climate beneficial” beanie made from wool that came from sheep on a ranch that uses regenerative grazing principles.
Annie’s is working with others in the food industry to try to quickly scale regenerative agriculture. “We’re a part of different industry collaborations, and so we share where we can share and help each other along,” says Shauna Sadowski, senior sustainability manager at Annie’s. “At the end of the day, we all want to see a future that we can all thrive in. And so we all have to do it.” There are challenges, she says, including coming to a consensus on how to define “regenerative agriculture,” and figuring out the best ways to measure how the practices are improving soil health on a specific farm. (Other parts of the product, like the cheese and the packaging, are also not regenerative). But the brand is committed to scaling up.
Boxed macaroni and cheese–a product that might seem like a symbol of industrial food–is one early step. The design echoes the shift in thinking: Instead of the sanitized bright blue background of a Kraft box, there’s a picture of dirt. “We really believe that sometimes to do something big you have to start by doing something that might feel small,” says Vernon. “But that if you do that small thing and it’s bold and exciting enough, the ripple effect is powerful.”