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“Heritage Agriculture” at Wal-Mart

February 23, 2010

Image Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan,

The first thing I saw, McIntosh apples, came from the same local orchard whose apples I’d just seen in the same bags at Whole Foods. The bunched beets were from Muranaka Farm, whose beets I often buy at other markets—but these looked much fresher.

In the above photo and quote, Cory Kummer is describing a Wal-Mart in the Raynham supercenter outside of Boston. Kummer’s new article in The Atlantic examines Wal-Mart’s new efforts to stock organic, sustainable, and locally grown foods. Needless to say, I was intrigued: beets?! (As a running joke, a friend of mine in New Orleans used to send morbid pictures of the food aisles at her local Wal-Mart–economy-sized mayonnaise, entire walls of Ranch dressing.)
The produce has found its way to Wal-Mart’s shelves through the corporation’s new Heritage Agricultural program. According to Kummer, the program “will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California.” The program’s “heritage” emphasis seems to stem from the fact that Wal-Mart is encouraging local farmers to return to the crops they cultivated before competition from Big Agriculture. In many markets, the struggle to compete has been made nearly impossible by the economic recession:

…last year, the market for organic milk started to go down along with the economy, and dairy farmers in Vermont and other states, who had made big investments in organic certification, began losing contracts and selling their farms. A guaranteed large buyer of organic milk began to look more attractive.

Prices vary: dry goods and dairy are significantly cheaper at Wal-Mart, while most produce is slightly cheaper than or comparable to Whole Foods. (On one quest for nearly-identical ingredients, Kummer spent $175 at Whole Foods and $126 at Wal-Mart; $20 of the difference was in chicken breasts.)
Kummer is, of course, skeptical that Wal-Mart’s new initiative might amount to nothing more than “greenwashing” an attempt to “grab market share and drive small farmers out of business.” Price and profit have always been Wal-Mart’s bottom lines, and the company has long been content demolish local industries. Ultimately, though, he’s won over by Heritage Agricultural.
I’m compelled, if not yet convinced, by Wal-Mart’s positioning the program as a collaboration with—rather than an intrusion into—small farming. In our current economic climate, price is everyone’s bottom line, and a company like Wal-Mart that knows how to streamline distribution and transportation may have a new role to play in the food industry. It will be interesting to see whether Wal-Mart (however notorious, I have to agree with Kummer’s description of the company as a “ruthlessly well-run mechanism”) bridge the gap between small farmers and consumers as they struggle to stay afloat.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2010 2:06 pm

    I am involved in sustainable agriculture in Vermont and would like to know more about the Walmart Heritage Ag project; specifically, if there are Walmart warehouses located within a days drive of Vermont farms. Can you tell me where I might find that information? Thank you!

    Michelle Gudorf
    President, Vermont Association of Conservation Districts


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