General Mills, research farm look at oats intercropping

A food industry giant is partnering with a Saskatchewan research farm to learn more about the benefits of intercropping oats.

General Mills, Inc. and the South East Research Farm in Redvers are joining forces, with funding from the company, to run trials to see whether peas grown with oats improves oat quality and nutrient density for its products, such as Cheerios and Lucky Charms.

“I think this will be the first intercropping project that’s crossing the border,” said Lana Shaw, manager of the Redvers facility. Her board of directors recently gave it the go-ahead.

Intercropping, the growing of two or more plant types together in the same row or field, is an old practice and a pivotal part of regenerative farming, which seeks to improve soils and crop quality while reducing costs and inputs.

General Mills already has a regenerative farming program to encourage producer training and regenerative practices.

The partnership starts soon with an on-line survey and personal interviews, Shaw said, to see how farmers are learning and feeling about intercropping, whose growing acceptance is based on better profit margins and improved soil health.

“The money’s been approved,” she said. “We’re just in the early days of getting started.”

General Mills is keen to learn whether intercropping reduces the need for inputs such as phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers. If the tests show well, the company can say it is taking action to reduce greenhouse gases and climate change.

Shaw said strip trials in three jurisdictions — Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota — will be sown this spring to gain knowledge about intercropping oats and peas versus oats alone. The results will be made public with the company getting credit.

It all comes down to General Mills wanting to know if it’s good policy to use regenerative farming practices in its food supply chain, Shaw said. The multinational firm owns such brands as Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.

The Redvers research farm board has hired a PhD in geography, Luke Struckman from the University of Ottawa, to manage the trials and the survey project.

Shaw said the total project is as much about people as farming.

“Why are they growing the intercrops? How did they learn about intercropping? It’s unusual to have more of these broad questions being asked,” she said.

“If this (partnership project) works out well, we could see more happening.”

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