Locally Grown Produce: Coming Soon to a Wal-Mart Near You

(This one’s for Zoe!)

The New York Times has a story today about Wal-Mart’s new push to source more of its produce from local (read: in-state) farmers:

The program is intended to put more locally grown food in Wal-Mart stores in the United States, invest in training and infrastructure for small and medium-sized farmers particularly in emerging markets and begin to measure the efficiently of large suppliers in growing and getting their produce to market.

Given that Wal-Mart is the world’s largest grocer, with one of the biggest food supply chains, any changes that it makes would have wide reaching implications. Wal-Mart’s decision five years ago to set sustainability goals that, among other things, increased its reliance on renewable energy and reduced packaging waste among its supplies, send broad ripples through product manufacturers. Large companies like Procter & Gamble redesigned packages that are now also carried by other retailers, while Wal-Mart’s measurements of environmental efficiency among its suppliers helped define how they needed to change.

[snip]

In the United States, Wal-Mart will double the percentage of locally sourced produce it uses, to 9 percent, the company said. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state. Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, where Wal-mart expects to buy 30 percent of produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.

In emerging markets, Wal-mart has pledged to sell $1 billion of food from small and medium farmers (which it defines as farmers with fewer than 20 hectares or about 50 acres). It will also provide training for the farmers and their laborers on how to choose crops that are in demand as well as the proper application of water and pesticides.

Both in the United States and globally, Wal-Mart will invest more than $1 billion to improve its perishable supply chain. For example, if trucks, trains and distribution centers could help farmers in rural Minnesota get crops to Wal-Mart more quickly, the result would be less spoiled food, a longer shelf life, and presumably more profit for both the farmer and for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart said it planned to reduce food waste in emerging-market stores by 15 percent, and in other stores by 10 percent.

Wal-Mart is, in many ways, the poster child of the excesses of corporate America. But the flip side of Wal-Mart’s size and buying power is that it has the ability to impact supply chains in a profoundly positive way, if it chooses to use its super powers for good.

The irony is that a company long known for putting local mom and pop stores out of business may in fact, if it becomes committed to this goal, in some measure revitalize local mom and pop farming. It’s also ironic to think that a company which can provide goods cheaply because they are sourced from labor markets on the other side of the world –  like China – may in fact help to bolster local economies and community sustainability through moves that restore short supply-chains and reduce the distance our food travels to reach our plates. 

I worry that Wal-Mart’s “Always Low Prices” will mean purchasing agreements that don’t compensate local producers well enough to keep them afloat, but time will tell how this works out for everyone involved.

By

Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

  • Margaret C

    Interesting, Steve. There was also this article in the WSJ today, talking about Wal-Mart opening smaller, “mom and pop”-sized stores in urban areas: http://goo.gl/ZAwX.

  • Zoe

    Thanks for the post, Steve! smilies/cheesy.gif

    One thing I’ll give Wal-Mart — it ain’t dumb. Its leaders see where the trends are going, and as an opportunity to not only capture a greater share of that market, but to repair its image as a small business and community killer.

    This sounds like a win-win in many ways, and in some areas it will be a big win for consumers and small farmers who don’t have many options but Wal-Mart.

    But I’m still skeptical about whether Wal-Mart does more harm than good in many places. The plan to build smaller stores in urban areas (the article Margaret cited) definitely threatens small local businesses who simply can’t compete with a multi-national like Wal-Mart, no matter what. As huge companies like this try to make inroads into new places and markets, neighborhoods will need to better define (in legislation) who they want to be and who they’re going to let in. Which isn’t a bad thing, I guess, but it takes diligence and work.

  • asha kent

    the contemplative in business stands for virtue. Wallmart, jby deffinition cannot stand for virtue.—and wht is sin?? a contradiction of virtue.. In the old days Catholics stood for things like “a living wage”.. which now seems gone from the lexicon of Catholic ethics.In Wall mart virtue is non existant as the moral behind their strategies to make money do not value anything or anyone, or any listening to the Divine voice or anything to do with meaningfulness.. so they are anti-ethic, anti morality, anti contempla, all of whic h are the basis of any true religion.

    you said “I worry that Wal-Mart’s “Always Low Prices” will mean purchasing agreements that don’t compensate local producers well enough to keep them afloat, “j Indeed, this is one good reason any dirt poor farmer is wise to stay away. When jthe retailer squezes the farmer, the farmer has no recourse and will simple be driven out of business.. and unlike a widget manufacturer, a farmer cannot go back into business whenever they want to.. so we, as a nation, simply loose farm-land.. it never goes back into production. so it is a lose-lose proposition.
    Catholic church should encourage and suipport contemplative business— the response should be to open farmers markets at churches… or help form cooperatives for farmers… food by local farmers will do more for a virtuous humanity than a new catechism class… really
    the Wall-Mart is not evil, just it is like a computer program running the moral life of those who give meaning to life.. so it is anti-productive lose, lose, lose
    and there is no way out for Walll Mart .. refferance the teachings of Thomas Aquinas…
    Asha Kent

  • Micha Elyi

    Don’t tell me that there are some folks here who want the benefits of mass production without any mass retailers around.

    Talk of a “living wage” is a return of the early medieval hunt for the “just price.” Catholic scholastics demonstrated that the only truly just price that is humanly knowable is the market price, and they accomplished this about a century or so (maybe more!) before Adam Smith came along.

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