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Gunsmoke Makes Dust: General Mills Getting Organic Farming Wrong West River

Uh oh: NPR reports that General Mills’s attempt to grow organic macaroni in South Dakota has turned its corporate mega-farm northwest of Fort Pierre into a mini-Dust Bowl:

…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.


  1. sx123 2021-05-05 09:30

    My great late dad (a farmer) consulted with and worked with Dr. Beck on some projects. Dr. Beck knows his stuff.

  2. jake 2021-05-05 10:24

    Ironic it is, that “organic farming” would ignore science input and local’s experience and put that region back into the “dust Bowl: days of ignorance. Corporate greed and pride to the downfall…..

  3. Donald Pay 2021-05-05 10:24

    I just read “After the West Was Won: Homesteaders and Town-Builders In Western South Dakota 1900-1917” by Paula M. Nelson. It details some of the hardships of the farmers who came in after the US Government put reservation lands on the market. A few dry years led to the first population collapse in South Dakota, That west river land should never have been used for farming, at least not on a wide scale. Are white people stupid? Do they never learn?

  4. Rebecca 2021-05-05 11:03

    Specifically remember when this land purchase was made and the plan announced, practically every farmer & rancher I know from that part of the state predicted this very thing would happen.
    But corporate ag is about mining and exploiting for short-term profit, not conservation and husbandry for future generations.

  5. Jeannie Bohley 2021-05-05 11:06

    Hello my name is Jeannie They need to look into more of a regenerative style of gardening and no tilling planting. There are different methods that they could use more of permaculture and sustainable regenerative gardening practices. Chop and Drop, no tilling planting, organic sustainable farming are just a couple things that they could do to farm on the land and not cause any environmental issues. It would actually heal the soil. I just received my certificate permaculture consultant. And there’s so much to learn about soil health and carbon farming and sustainable regenerative gardening. I believe if they use a no-till method it would not kick up the dust and it would help with soil health. Please consider using a no-till method and remaining organic.

  6. jerry 2021-05-05 16:55

    30,000 acres of some of the best hard grass in the world is now dust. The only thing you can grow in west river is livestock and hay to feed them. I wonder how much General Mills got subsidized.

  7. Edwin Arndt 2021-05-05 17:59

    Organic with no-till is very difficult. Organic precludes the use of chemicals
    and that makes weed control a lot of work. It generally means cultivation or
    hand weeding. Jeannie, if you know how to do organic farming without
    chemicals I would be interested in learning.

  8. Arlo Blundt 2021-05-05 17:59

    Well…we never learn. You don’t have to remember the 30’s, the 70’s brought a real dust bowl back to the West River when Texans came in, leased thousands of acres and tilled horizon to horizon during the “Wheat boom”. Dirt clogged the ditches, blew windrows across county roads, filled in stock dams, and the Bad River belched a mountain of mud into the Missouri. (It’s still there) I remember signing a “an “anti Sod Buster” petition for the legislature circulated by Tony Dean. What stopped it eventually was the Russians invading Afghanistan and Carter suspending the Wheat trade with the USSR. That and another periodic Midwest Farm Disaster drove out the Texans but it took a generation to get grass back on those grounds west of the river.

  9. Edwin Arndt 2021-05-05 19:35

    Sorry Jeannie, I meant no-till farming without chemicals.

  10. T 2021-05-05 20:27

    This sounds too stupid to be true. An expensive gimmick to reinforce belief in traditional farming maybe. Sounds fishy it was done so half heartedly. I’ve met organic farmers; prepared, educated and thorough.

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