SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The maker of Cheerios cereal, Nature Valley bars and Yoplait yogurt has chosen South Dakota State University as its partner in an effort to improve the quality of oats and make the crop more sustainable.
A new research laboratory will focus on the grain that's found in more than a quarter of the Minneapolis-based General Mills' products, and provide a place for the company's scientists to collaborate with the Brookings university's plant breeders, grain, environmental and seed experts, student researchers and others.
"Oats are an absolutely essential part of General Mills' portfolio," Jim Kirkwood, vice president and chief science and technology development officer at General Mills, told The Associated Press on Friday, a day after the laboratory was unveiled. "... South Dakota and North Dakota for the last 150 years have been a source of some of the best oats that we use in our products. Since we founded the company we've been buying oats from that area, and the university there is one of the leaders in oats breeding."
General Mills will relocate an oat breeding scientist to Brookings. The lab will focus on improving the nutritional qualities of oats, developing oat varieties with higher yields and helping farmers improve practices to increase sustainability.
The company is aiming to get all of its oats from sustainable sources by 2020.
South Dakota was second in the nation in oat production last year, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oats are an important component of the state's agriculture industry as it can be used in crop rotations, diversifying growers' crop revenue and providing soil health benefits, said Daniel Scholl, interim dean of SDSU's College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences.
For years, SDSU has been developing new varieties of oats that thrive in South Dakota and the region's environment. Scholl said the university's work has enabled growers to be "very profitable contributors" to domestic and global oats markets, but more research is needed as the demand for the crop continues to grow.
General Mills alone uses oats in more than 600 products sold in the U.S. In the last fiscal year, 25 percent of the company's retail sales volume in the country comprised products that contained whole grain oats.
"Oats can be made better as a crop," said Scholl, who also directs the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station. "It can be made more profitable to grow, more disease resistant (and) more resistant to pests so that it would require less pesticide treatment. That, for example, would make it more environmentally friendly potentially and more profitable for the grower."