I've been hearing rumors for months: that Walmart was about to make official the program I first wrote about in the March Atlantic, when no one else had heard of it. And I, the first to be a Walmart skeptic, was plenty skeptical. The program aimed to increase the amount of locally grown produce Walmart sells, "local" meaning with a day's transport of one of its huge distribution centers. And it would improve the transportation infrastructure to make its distribution centers more easily available to the small- and medium-sized farmers who are usually shut out of big chain stores, not just because they don't grow enough of any one crop but because they don't have a way of getting it from their farm to a warehouse.
When I wrote the piece, "Heritage Agriculture"—a misleading name, because it refers not to heirloom varieties but to regional agricultural heritage—was still in its test phase, which as with anything Walmart tries meant it already had huge potential impact. And when I wrote it I came in for many Et-tu-Brute attacks from all quarters. Wouldn't Walmart seduce and abandon the small farmers it said it really, really wanted to help, as it (and its reputation-minded rivals, too) had done in the past? How serious were they, and what would the actual impact be on small farmers who didn't play by its rules?
We'll still have to see. But as of today the huge initial impact I described is going global. Local produce and training farmers in sustainability practices is a stated part of the company's operating practices and goals. A fact sheet on the website announcing the initiative says that Walmart will "support farmers and their communities" in its international commitment to
- sell $1 billion globally in food sourced directly from small, medium and local farmers;
- provide training to 1 million farmers and farm workers in such areas as crop selection and sustainable farming practices -- the company expects half of these farmers to be women;
- raise the income of farmers it sources from by 10 to 15 percent.
In a speech this morning Leslie Dach, VP for corporate affairs, emphasized the support Heritage Agriculture will give farmers who need it even more during the recession, and particularly women farmers:
In mid-America, where more families are now entirely dependent upon their farms for their livelihood, we are increasing our purchases of crops like apples and potatoes in Michigan, for example.
In the I-95 corridor along the East Coast, there is a high concentration of women- and minority-owned growers that will benefit as we expand purchases of vegetables, such as bell peppers, cucumbers and squash to take advantage of the growing season beginning in Florida and moving northward.
The Delta states have a long history of cash crops such as tobacco and cotton, which are in decline. We are replacing these with produce such as blueberries in Mississippi and Arkansas where the longer growing season is ideal.
In the United States, the company says, it will double sales of locally sourced produce.
Standard caveats here: Walmart has been on the losing end of class-action lawsuits against its employment practices; it has in the past driven local farm after farm out of business, as David Warner, whose City Feed and Supply grocery/cafe is down the street from where I write and where I'm about to go to stock up on local produce, eloquently recounted on the Food Channel of his childhood spent in Walmart HQ's backyard; and nothing replaces direct contact and purchases from farmers at a farmers' market, through a CSA, or at a farm stand.
But standard defenses too: Walmart makes fresh produce available in food deserts, both urban and rural, and at prices people who need to eat it can afford. And Walmart says it is the largest customer of U.S. agriculture. Whatever it does will make a difference in the lives of pretty much every American farmer.
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