Married to Walmart: What Was I Thinking?

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My organic raisins are on Walmart shelves, with the farmer-owned cooperative Sun Maid on the label. What contradiction have I created?

Ten years ago, Walmart wanted organic raisins. It had already become a major player in the food world, and by the 2000's it was launching an organic section in some of its stores. Bringing the option of organic raisins to the typical Walmart shopper was probably something very new. This I liked: middle-class organics. People on tighter budgets deserve organic options.

So Walmart decides to contract with Sun Maid for a steady supply of organic raisins. Sun Maid says yes, realizes it needs more organic farmers, and has to educate its sales team about organics. Sun Maid is a farmer-owned cooperative—it's huge, controlling as much as 40 percent of the domestic raisin supply. The coop model empowers hundreds of farmers, many with small farms and run by old farmers in their sixties and seventies. My only complaint: Sun Maid doesn't realize that being a cooperative is a positive selling point—it's part of a very cool story behind the typical faceless raisin. Young people would like to know that.

So, years later: am I married, divorced, or sinning with Sun Maid and Walmart?

Thus my marriage with Sun Maid: I became its resident organic farming expert. And I began a new affair—an unlikely threesome between partners who have organics in common. My own farm had been organic since the 1980s. Although our peaches always sold well, our organic raisins were often without a viable home because sales were hit or miss. Were our sweet, innocent organic raisins being courted by Walmart, and vice versa? Was Walmart, the slick city suitor, trying to sweep us naive country folks off our feet then suck the life out of us? Or was I an idealistic organic farmer, believing I could help hundreds of acres transition to organic, reduce pesticide use and protect the health of farmers and farm workers?

Walmart doesn't exactly court. It has sharp business acumen, and had already deeply penetrated the food industry, going from zero to becoming a major player in different commodity sectors. (An example: stone fruit. After starting in the 1990s, in a few years it controlled an estimated 15 percent of all U.S. sales of peaches, plums, and nectarines.)

I spoke at a Sun Maid workshop with farmers to talk about going organic. Farmers control the board of directors, and are very conscious of being a cooperative: our raisins are pooled, and together we get a better price. The other farmers were skeptical at first, but I was seen as one of them, too. My advice: organics makes you manage a vineyard differently. It's not about substituting organic sprays for conventional. You take care of life, of your soil, and of yourself. And you get a price premium.

With the Sun Maid sales team, I shared my personal story about how I farm organically and what it means. I asked the farmers I talked to three questions to prompt their thinking about the sustainable tenets of organic farming. Would they rather be filthy rich like Bill Gates and give away billions (economic viability with my own philanthropic bias), or save the rain forests in Brazil (environmentally responsible), or fund health care for all the farm workers in the raisins industry (social justice)? The vast majority, of course, chose the Bill Gates scenario—though I'm not sure they heard the part about giving away your wealth.

At one annual Sun Maid luncheon—which draws over a thousand farmers who met to hear both good and bad news, bitch about the weather, and share a spirit of camaraderie—I sat next to a 70-year-old widow who had worked side by side with her husband for decades. She is hanging on to their small vineyard, likes giving away red Sun Maid boxes of raisins as gifts, and asked me if she could take home the untouched basket of rolls after the lunch. She listened to me and asked questions about transitioning to organic. A good sign.

So, years later: am I married, divorced, or sinning with Sun Maid and Walmart? Some of my organic friends will not forgive me when I mention Walmart and my raisins. Walmart still buys some Sun Maid organic raisins. It's not a huge amount—and the company continues to dominate the food marketplace. (And now it just donated billions to fight hunger. Go figure.) Sun Maid itself was too big to become dependent on Walmart. Organic sales continue to grow, albeit slowly. More growers are now certified organic—most, probably, for the organic premium. But at the most recent annual lunch, I heard more talk about reducing pesticides.

And on our farm, we still make organic raisins that I feed to our family. When you eat what you grow, how can there be a contradiction?

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