…some of Gunsmoke Farms’ neighbors say that the farm is doing more environmental harm than good.
Among the critics is Dwayne Beck, a soil scientist who manages South Dakota State University’s Dakota Lakes Research Station, 40 miles east of Gunsmoke Farms. Beck was skeptical about the project from the beginning. “It scared me, because normally organic [farming] entails lots of tillage, and those soils are very fragile,” he said.
…During the farm’s three-year transition to organic status, its managers grew primarily alfalfa, which doesn’t require annual planting. In 2020, though, they planted their first crops of wheat and peas, which involved tilling the enormous fields.
Months later, Beck said his fears were realized. He collected photographs of the damage: small drifts of wind-blown soil in a roadside ditch, and a country road that disappears into a brown cloud of blowing dust. “The soil that blew out of there, it will never be the same as it was before it blew,” he said. It won’t have the stability and structure of healthy soil, held in place by the roots of plants.
Beck and others who live near Gunsmoke Farms said that nonorganic farmers also struggled to control soil erosion in 2020 because of drought and high winds. But the problems at Gunsmoke, they said, were worse. A planting of winter wheat, which was supposed to protect the soil on those fields, failed to grow well [Dan Charles, “A Giant Organic Farm Faces Criticism That It’s Harming the Environment,” NPR, 2021.05.03].
Drought and wind are hard on all farmers, big and small, but General Mills and its now-independent corporate partner in Gunsmoke Farms, San Francisco global investment firm TPG, appears not to have listened to its own scientific advisors to minimize harm to the land:
When the Gunsmoke project was just getting off the ground, in 2018, an expert from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service drew up a soil conservation plan for the farm. That plan called for wide strips of native grasses across the farm to help prevent soil from blowing, and for the steepest slopes to stay covered, most years, with crops such as alfalfa that don’t require annual planting.
Gary Zimmer, an expert on organic farming who collaborated with General Mills in launching the Gunsmoke project, said that he drew up a plan that incorporated many of these measures. But he said much of his plan was never implemented.
“It’s in a deep hole,” Zimmer said, referring to the farm. “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” [Charles, 2021.05.03].
Maybe General Mills needs to check in with Charlie Johnson and his brothers, who are stewarding a couple thousand acres in Lake County through its fifth decade of organic farming without burying the Orland-Franklin metroplex under great drifts of snert. Of course, the Johnsons also have the advantage of farming on the great glacial till of East River, land that may be more suited to growing lots of green things than older, drier, clay-ier earth West of the River.