The concept of local produce seems pretty simple: It’s fresher, tastes better and supports local communities. But there’s much more to the story. Walmart Green Room interviewed Ron McCormick, Walmart’s senior director of sustainable agriculture, to learn more about local farming.
Green Room: Why is local farming important and what is Walmart doing to provide locally-grown produce to customers?
Ron McCormick: Local farming is important in many ways and for many reasons. Agriculture remains one of the largest employers in many states, from very small family farms to large corporate farms and all the businesses that support them. Fresh foods in America often travel long distances, which can mean loss of flavor and nutrients, and the days on the road are days lost for our customers’ refrigerators. We all know how frustrating and costly it can be to go to the refrigerator and find something has spoiled. At Walmart, we believe buying locally can give those days of freshness back to our customers, saving them money and also encouraging them to buy and consume more fresh foods. Because we have 42 food distribution centers spread across the U.S., we can do locally grown efficient and fast. Buying closer to the customer also means we can save money on freight costs and pass those savings on to our customers. Our customers tell us they want to support farmers in their states, and they appreciate the quality and freshness of locally grown produce.
GR: Some people might be surprised that some of the fresh produce in stores is produced locally. How does it work?
RM: Buying from the communities that support our stores is part of our culture going back to our founder Sam Walton buying watermelons for one of the first new store openings. But because we are a large company, many of our customers aren’t aware of the large amount we buy from their own states. Because it makes sense from a business perspective and it matters to our customers, buying local is just everyday business for us. That includes our Global Food Sourcing team who buys in the U.S. for our stores in states with large producers (and for our stores all over the world), our buyers in Bentonville, Ark., and a special team of local buyers. Our local buyers have a goal of buying as many items, and as much of our needs as possible for our stores from farmers in that state. So if we don’t already buy a product grown in Texas for Texas stores, for example, the local buyers will work with big and little farmers to buy the product, or encourage the farmers to grow the item so we can buy local during the season. This meets our customer demand for local while improving the farmers’ business. We also work with agricultural universities and other experts to help farmers improve their growing practices, expand their crops and lengthen their seasons.
GR: There’s some debate about what counts as local. Can you explain what local means to Walmart?
RM: That’s right, there are a number of opinions on what is local, and no official definition. When we talk about local produce, we define it as grown and sold in the same state. That seems to make sense to many customers who take great pride in their home states. It works well with our joint efforts with state departments of agriculture, and state ag schools to support state agriculture. It certainly makes sense to the states’ farmers we buy hundreds of millions of dollars of fresh fruits and vegetables from each year.
GR: Can you share something new that you’ll be working on in 2013?
RM: We’re very excited about the work we are doing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several historically black land grant universities on pilots for helping small farmers sell to large buyers like Walmart or large food service customers, and compete in today’s marketplace. We hope that these pilots, including developing food hubs and connecting farmers to existing resources in a more efficient way, can be taken to many rural communities and will lead to vigorous regional agricultural communities that benefit everyone. And with the recent experimenting in urban agriculture, we think what we learn may also translate to those potential growing areas.