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Digging Into Wal-Mart’s
‘Locally Grown’ Numbers

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 28, 2008

We’ve written a number of pieces on the locally grown phenomenon and, particularly, on the issue of food safety and locally grown. These articles have included items such as these:

Food Safety And Locally Grown

Getting Locally Grown Up To Standard

New York Times Article Reveals Double Standard On Food Safety

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wegmans Responds To ‘Double Standard’ Allegation

Wal-Mart is so big that its actions bring prominence to any movement, and so its announcement that Wal-Mart Makes National Commitment to Buy Locally Grown Produce and that Wal-Mart Commits to America’s Farmers as Produce Aisles Go Local brought many television, web and newspaper reports.

This is really nothing new… for a long time Wal-Mart has had a Store of the Community initiative and its commitment to purchase $400 million in locally grown produce only works out to about $440 a day per store when you consider the company has about 2,500 supercenters and Neighborhood Markets. We also have previously mentioned Wal-Mart’s initiative to promote “Heritage Agriculture.”

In addition, although Wal-Mart seems to typically refer to produce grown “in state” as local, Wal-Mart doesn’t ever officially define what it means by “locally grown,” so it is difficult to ascertain the significance of the effort.

For example, Wal-Mart kicked its whole summer program off with a big in-store farmers’ market at a supercenter in DeKalb County, GA. Interestingly enough, Wal-Mart elected to highlight Delbert Bland, identifying him in its press release with the explanation that he is a “Georgia onion farmer” and mentioning that “his family farm has been in operation in Glennville, Ga. since the 1940s, and he is featured on in-store signage in the Atlanta area.”

All this is completely true and yet, to us, seems to beg the question. We look at Wal-Mart’s state by state chart of locally grown produce, and we are not certain that products such as Vidalia onions, Indian River grapefruit, Washington State cherries, Idaho potatoes, Hawaiian pineapples or California kiwifruit really make a lot of sense to view as part of a locally grown initiative.

We see these as broadly shipped products and, incidentally, some of the produce gets eaten in its home state. To consider California Navel Oranges as “local produce in California,” as Wal-Mart does on its website, is technically true but surely adds more smoke than light to the subject.

It certainly makes us wonder how to judge that $400 million number that Wal-Mart has been promoting. If it includes California oranges in California, Florida grapefruit in Florida, Washington cherries in Washington, Idaho potatoes in Idaho, etc., we have to suspect that the locally grown buy, figured as non-broadly shipped product, is just a fraction of that number.

As we dug into Wal-Mart’s locally grown program, we noted that it published on its “Buy Local” website farmer profiles. We reviewed the nine local growers profiled and were pleased to find that we could quickly identify in public databases audit documentation for many of them — which we were unable to do when we looked at the farmers Wegmans’ lists on its website (although as we mentioned here Wegmans is in the process of changing that situation).

We wondered how Wal-Mart pulled off this trick as compared to Wegmans and then we realized… the local growers that Wal-Mart is highlighting are mostly very large farms!

Wegmans has a big challenge in bringing food safety to its local growers because it is buying from people such as the 3-acre Peek-A-Blueberry farm in Bath, NY, the 15-acre farm maintained by The Farmer’s Daughter in Nunda, NY, the 50-acre Fenton’s Produce in Batavia, NY .

Now Wegmans also has plenty of larger local growers as well, and both Wal-Mart and Wegmans are perfectly honest about who they are buying from, trumpeting their names on their respective web sites. But you look at the nine growers Wal-Mart highlights as its “local growers” and you wonder if these mostly large growers correspond to what consumers think they are supporting when they “buy local.”

Titan Farms GA, SC, VA Peaches 6,400 acres

Ham Farms NC Sweet Potatoes 7,000 acres

Parker Farms VA Vegetables 1,800 acres

Pedernales Valley Farms TX Tomatoes 102 acres

Antelope Hill Orchards CO Peaches 200 acres

Bland Farms GA Onions 3,500 acres

Tennessee Homegrown Tomatoes TN Tomatoes 223 acres

Van Groningen & Sons CA Watermelon 4.000 acres

Wiers Farms OH Vegetables 3,000 acres

Once again, we come down to the meaning of local. Many, like Wal-Mart, focus on geography. Whole Foods also sees this as the point and deserves real credit for publishing its definition:

Only produce that has traveled less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck) from the farm to our facility can be labeled “locally grown.”

We don’t particularly like the word facility in there as it strikes us as an opportunity to stretch the definition. What if the facility is 7 hours south of the produce and then the store is three hours south of the facility? Isn’t that the same as ten hours? What if it goes from one Whole Foods facility to another and then onto a store?

But even taking it as it stands, one can drive from Massachusetts to Virginia in seven hours — would any Virginian consider Massachusetts-grown produce “local?” We doubt it.

Many studies done over the years indicate a consumer preference for produce grown in-state. Consumers seem to assume that the produce will be riper and more economical. Some may, politically, want to support their state. We’ve not seen any real research indicating consumer preference for produce from nearby states.

Today’s locally grown movement ties into sustainability and certainly has connections to geography and the idea of reducing carbon output by eliminating unnecessary transport. But we also think that many consumers who find appeal in locally grown often believe they are supporting small farmers.

Is it, however, tenable to think that three-acre farms will ever offer satisfactory evidence of world-class food safety practices? And what will we do with them if they can’t?

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