Big farm northwest of Fort Pierre to grow organic wheat for General Mills

March 8, 2018 GMT

The near-legendary and huge, 34,000-acre Gunsmoke Farm northwest of Fort Pierre has been sold by R.D. Offutt Co., of Fargo, to a California firm that plans to grow organic wheat for General Mills. It will be the largest organic farm in South Dakota - increasing by two-thirds the current total of organic crop acres - and one of the largest in the nation.

Ron D Offutt, the nation’s biggest potato producer, bought the big farm in 2012 on a contract for deed from the Haskins family which had grown wheat there for 40 years; he completed the contract for deed in December 2016 for $41.7 million, making it one of the biggest such land transactions in the state.

In August, 2017, he sold it to Gunsmoke Farms LLC, - for $37.5 million, according to the Stanley County register of deeds. Gunsmoke Farms is owned by TPG of San Francisco, “a private investment company with an interest in sustainability,” according to the Associated Press which broke the story on Tuesday.

General Mills put out a news release Tuesday announcing the plan to “convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland to certified organic acreage by 2020.”

TPG and Gunsmoke will grow spring wheat for General MIlls’s Annie’s pasta products, including is popular Mac and Cheese.

“We’re kind of obsessed with soil,” Carla Vernon, president of General Mills’ Annie unit in Berkeley, California, told AP ahead of the company’s announcement Tuesday. “And that’s because we know the power of soil is big.”

Based in Golden Valley, just west of downtown Minneapolis, General Mills wants to double its organic acres by 2020 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025 “because it believes climate change will be bad for business,” AP reported. And consumers want more natural and organic food products, they say.

The huge farm that stretches from Highway 34 a few miles west of Fort Pierre to about 20 miles northwest, a total of 53 square miles, or sections, of land, is sort of tucked between Ted Turner’s two huge buffalo ranches, the Bad River and the former Triple U/now Standing Butte Ranch.

Long called Gunsmoke Farm informally because of the legend that famed actor and Minnesota native James Arness of the TV Western, “Gunsmoke,” owned some of the land back in the day, the farm now has the name officially as TPG formed the Gunsmoke Farms LLC to own and operate it.

“It’s exciting,” said Mark Venner, an organic farmer north of Pierre who is on the east and opposite side of Lake Oahe from Gunsmoke Farms.

But he also said organic farmers are, by nature, skeptical when big companies like General Mills get involved in agriculture, because it’s usually not connected to many of the sustainable, non-chemical-use values of organic farmers.

On the other hand, Venner said: “When a name like General Mills is here, I can sure see the upside for the little guys….To have General Mills come out in the middle of South Dakota and say ‘We are organic,’ is huge.”

Venner said the scale is huge. The 86 organic farmers now in the state have a total of about 116,000 acres, most of it in range or pasture. So Gunsmoke Farms represents an increase of two-thirds on the current 52,000 acres of organic cropland in South Dakota.

Marc Schober, director of Colvin & Co., is in charge of managing Gunsmoke Farms for TBG in partnership with General Mills. “We are part owners and also manage the farm,” he said. “We are in a joint venture with TPG.”

A new farm manager, Andrew Fairbairn, is at the farm, as are some other employees, Schober told the Capital Journal on Tuesday. He’s working to advertise for more employees, Schober said.

Offutt farmed the Gunsmoke “conventionally,” including in 2017, meaning he used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are not kosher for certified organic crops, Schober said.

That means Gunsmoke Farms must spend three years preparing the acres, without growing a cash crop, to sort of cleanse the soil of the farm chemicals.

“We are still (working) out our farm plan, our crop rotation, so there are still some moving pieces,” said Schober. “Now we are in our transition period. We are trying to build up the soil’s fertility by the use of cover crops.”

When asked if Gunsmoke Farms will use low-till or no-till farming practices, Schober said that sort of decision hasn’t been finalized yet.

“Conventional” fertilizers made from petroleum-based chemicals can’t be used on organic crops, so mulched cover crops and “natural” animal manure are possible fertilizer sources.

It will be one of, and perhaps the largest, single-plot organic farm - in contiguous acres - in the nation, according to some sources.

Venner said he checked with other organic farm leaders who say they do not know of one this size.

Schober said he knows of a large organic vegetable farm in California with more than 50,000 total acres, but it’s divided up in many pieces, or separate farm locations. “It’s one of the largest organic farms,” he said of the Gunsmoke.

One of the attractions of Gunsmoke Farms for an organic operation is its huge and contiguous size and its relative isolation from other crop land, as much of the surrounding land is range and pasture.

Organic farms are required, by USDA, to have buffer zones around fields of 20 to 30 feet to avoid things such as wind drift of chemical pesticides from non-organic farm operations. The shape and size of Gunsmoke Farms makes it easier to provide such buffer zones for huge fields, Schober said.

Tuesday’s news answers some questions for South Dakota farmers, Venner said. Since it became known a few years ago that Offutt had bought a huge wheat farm in Stanley County, people wondered what it was about for the potato giant, Venner said.

And separately there has been talk of a big organic farm plan in the region, he said.

“It’s been in the rumor mill for a long time, that someone West River is going into organic,” Venner said on Tuesday. He had gotten calls on Tuesday from organic farmers in the region about the news of the deal involving the Gunsmoke Farm and seen the story online from The Associated Press.

He was just at a national organic farming conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, that drew 3,000 organic farmers from across the nation, Venner said.

The demand is out there for organic crops to be grown to put foods on the table that Americans want, Venner said.

“Roughly 60 percent of our organic small grains products in 2016 were imported from overseas,” he said Tuesday. “So already American organic farmers are way behind the power curve in terms of meeting the demand.”