Field Notes: How Wal-Mart's local foods push is playing out in the Midwest

Feb 1, 2013

A customer shops for produce at a Wal-Mart in Columbia, Mo. The retailer claims 11 percent of its produce sold in its stores nationally comes from local farms.
Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For this episode of Field Notes, we turn to the world’s largest retailer — Wal-Mart — and its commitment to local food. Back in 2010, Wal-Mart announced it would double the amount of local produce it sold in stores by 2015. The company has already exceeded that goal two years ahead of schedule. Now it claims to source 11 percent of its produce sold in the U.S. from local farms. Wal-Mart defines local as grown and sold in the same state.

To understand how this is playing out in the Midwest, I called the senior director of sustainable agriculture for Wal-Mart’s U.S. division, Ron McCormick, in Bentonville, Ark. First, he explained how the local produce program worked.

We have eight local buyers whose job it is to buy as much local as they can for our stores in particular states and they in particular work with our smaller farmers, direct farmers and suppliers. We have some product that goes directly to our stores where we set up the small farmer and the small farmer talks to the produce manager in the store and arranges deliveries. And then a large chunk of the product that we buy locally is sourced by our global food sourcing team, which has offices in … Florida, Texas, California and Washington state because there is, of course, so much U.S. production in those states.

Then I asked McCormick about the challenges to working with small farmers. Back when Wal-Mart first announced its emphasis on local food, the company said one of its goals was to use small and medium-sized farms as suppliers for the local produce program.

One of the big problems is simply the fact that you’re buying lots of dollars worth of product from lots of people. So being able to communicate with large numbers of farmers is a challenge for everyone … And then from a practical perspective, too, you know one of the advantages of doing business with a big national grower is that if they have rain or hail on a field, they simply ship us the product from another location or another field where they’re growing and we don’t see the problem that the farmer’s enduring as a buyer … And as all of us are getting more interested and understanding the need to be conscious about food safety, the simple things that farmers have to do to ensure food safety, if you’re not spreading that cost over lots of dollars and lots of production, it’s difficult for it to make financial sense. 

Still, McCormick says the number of small growers Wal-Mart works with has grown in the past two years. But he admitted that you won't find many of them in much of the Midwest because he says there are few small growers that are able to do business with big customers like Wal-Mart.

Because this is essentially a produce initiative at this point in time, you’re not going to find the small farmers there that we would do business with. We do more business in lots of other states, where there are lots of small farmers that are doing specialty crops, which is what you’d find in a produce department.

According to McCormick, the states where Wal-Mart does go to buy produce from small farms are "Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Texas — many states where the number of small farmers are so much greater than they would be in a place like Kansas."