Wal-Mart’s reputation may largely be opposite the local movement, but the company’s diligent work with its Heritage Agriculture program is helping to change that.  Local farmers who work with the superstore praise the company as easy to work with and very supportive of their small farm endeavors.

“Without their encouragement, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’ve done,” said Dave Sergent, owner of Sergent Farms, located in the northwest corner of Arkansas.   

watermelon1-featured.jpgSergent Farms has been working with Wal-Mart for almost five years.  Sergent’s small farm grows fruits and vegetables that are marketed at both Wal-Mart and local farmers markets.  Products include blackberries, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapenos, poblano peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. 

About three years ago, Wal-Mart’s Ron McCormick, Senior Director, Strategic Food Sourcing saw an article in a local newspaper with photos from the 1920s and 1930s showing that Rogers, Arkansas (the home of the first Wal-Mart) was once one of the largest producers of apples. 

“This triggered the concept that all across the US there are similar stories of communities that were once thriving agricultural economies, but lost out as the agriculture migrated west and south,” McCormick said.

Today, many of these areas that once supported agriculture are often home to a Wal-Mart Food distribution center.  “It made sense to us, that if we could revitalize those economies, it would let us buy fresher product for our customers and save food miles.  At the same time, we would be supporting many rural communities that support our stores,” McCormick explained.

“It’s been my third year delivering to Wal-Mart and they are really helping with the local movement,” Sergent said in a phone interview with Food Safety News.  In order to enroll in the program, Wal-Mart requires that the farmers pass local inspections and other sanitation tests.  Of the requirements, Sergent said, “I think it’s a good thing, because what it does, is it ensures that everything that goes onto the shelves is the best quality it can be.”

Sergent’s feelings were echoed by farmer Bob Savolt of Hubers Produce, a small farm located in Kansas.  Of the program Savolt said, “I think that the program is a good thing.  It will help the public know that they’re getting good products because they know the area and know where it comes from.”

Savolt’s farm has been selling produce to Wal-Mart through the Heritage Agriculture program for about eight years now and he has enjoyed his experience with the company.  Hubers Produce sells cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkins, and other produce to Wal-Mart through their direct store delivery program. 

On the demand for local produce, Savolt said, “It has a lot to do with the economy.  When they put, ‘locally grown’ up in the store, even if it comes from within 100 miles of that Wal-Mart, you know you’re getting something that isn’t coming from warehouses.  It’s about as fresh as you can get.”

Both Huber’s Produce and Sergent Farms also sell produce at farmers markets in their localities and neither saw their dealings with Wal-Mart as detrimental to the local food movement.  

Sergent also commented on the food safety aspect of small farms and selling locally.  “For example, on our farm, no one is allowed to touch a product that goes to market with their bare hands.  They have to wear gloves no matter what they’re doing and we wash and sanitize everything,” he said.

cantaloupe-featured.jpgSavolt explained that the timeliness of the process actually helps with reducing the carbon footprint that shipping produce over miles creates.  “We pick our vegetables and deliver to them the next day.  Trying to stay within states helps promote locally grown and produced items,” he said.

When asked if they thought the program promotes nutritious choices to the customers of Wal-Mart, Savolt and Sergent agreed that it does. 

Of the local programs McCormick said, “We are seeing success with these growers expanding the types of produce they grow, and extending their season.  This expansion gives us more locally grown product to buy, and helps reduce their fixed costs and makes their farms more profitable and sustainable.”

One of the latest trends in local farms has been women-owned farms.  “We seem to be seeing a generation of talent that has inherited the family farm from fathers or husbands, and we believe that if that talent can be empowered, it can drive great success,” McCormick said.

He explained that another large growth can be seen in Hispanic foods because of the growing Latino population.  “Items like cilantro and jalapeños have grown to be in the top-25 items in many markets,” McCormick said.

Wal-Mart’s stores sometimes serve as one of few, if not the only retailer in rural areas.  This program brings fresh produce to consumers who do all of their grocery shopping at the store and otherwise might not have access.

“Customers love local, and the demand goes unmet today across the country.  They understand that product grown closer to home can be fresher, and that if it does not have to ship for 1,500 miles, growers can focus on flavor and ripeness, not ship-ability,” McCormick said.

So whether consumers choose to shop at local farms, farmers markets, local or chain grocery stores, or a Wal-Mart Supercenter, local produce seems to be more accessible for more people.  With a little research, consumers can educate themselves as to where their food comes from, and according to most farmers, the venue doesn’t matter as much as the mantra–local is always better.