MINNEAPOLIS — General Mills, Inc. has announced a collaboration with two dozen central Kansas winter wheat producers for a holistic farming pilot program. The effort, part of a company initiative to advance regenerative ag practices, is intended to improve water quality in and around the Cheney Reservoir watershed, which provides water to more than 400,000 residents in Wichita, Kas.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment, a pilot partner, said its objective is to make agriculture the clean water solution at the 650,000-acre watershed, on which 99% of the land is used for agriculture.

“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 the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “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.”

More than 150 participants at two, two-day Soil Health Academy seminars in November provided the selection pool for the three-year pilot program. The 24 producers selected for participation will co-develop and initiate regenerative farming management plans with another partner, Fort Payne, Ala.-based Understanding Ag.

Growers will be encouraged to continue their education via a “soil health academy” and have access to farmer-focused field days and a private social media group. The intent of the latter two elements is an ongoing exchange of ideas and best practices for aligning farm practices with a regenerative mindset. Program leaders hope region-specific learning will accelerate and be broadly shared among practitioners.

“The project represents an enormous opportunity to demonstrate the many on- and off-farm benefits of regenerative agriculture in wheat production, including increased farm profitability, improved resiliency and enhanced biodiversity,” said farmer Gabe Brown, co-founder of Understanding Ag. “Thanks to this partnership, UA’s regenerative-farmer consultants will work to ensure the successful and profitable adoption of critical soil health-improving practices on these farms.”

Another 18 winter wheat producers will have an opportunity to take part in studies of reduced- and no-tillage production, cover cropping and nutrient management as part of the Soil Health Partnership Associate Program, now in its second year.

General Mills said the regenerative agriculture pilot initiates practices with numerous long-term benefits for producers and their communities.

“This pilot is an important step in our commitment to advance regenerative practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030, but more so supports our belief that these practices can have long-term positive impact on farmer profitability, soil health, water quality and biodiversity,” said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills.

A little less than a year ago General Mills announced plans to partner with organic and conventional farmers, suppliers and farm advisers in key growing regions to advance regenerative agriculture practices over the next 10 years. At that time, General Mills said its first on-farm training and education academies would focus on North American growers who source oats for Cheerios, Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Nature Valley and Blue Buffalo.

General Mills has been driving awareness of regenerative agriculture with consumers through its brands. In 2018, the company introduced two limited-edition Annie’s branded products featuring ingredients grown using regenerative farming practices. Annie’s elbow pasta and cheddar and bunny-shaped baked graham snacks were made using organic ingredients from regenerative farms in Montana. The farmers, Nate Powell-Palm and Casey Bailey, were named and pictured on the packaging.

Meanwhile, Cascadian Farm, another General Mills brand, is working alongside The Land Institute to commercialize organic Kernza. Kernza is a perennial grain whose roots are able to capture carbon and water, while preventing soil erosion, according to General Mills.