Walmart Saves the Small Farm…???

First off, I feel the need to apologize for the lack of decent writing on this blog. I’m not happy with it, and I haven’t been since the beginning.  I’m apologizing because I am, in fact, a damn good writer, as it’s practically a requirement with my job.  But heretofore, I’ve been lackadaiscal about it.  I just want to get a blog post out, and I don’t have much extra time.  You’d actually be amazed how long it takes me to put the poorly written stuff I’ve already blogged about up.  It irks me to no end, and if I tried to write better, it’d take even longer. What’s a girl with not-enough-time-as-it-is to do?

I’m not sure the answer to that one, but I’m going to try to do better. This will probably result in less posts, but in more output I’m proud of.  After all, this whole thing is a reflection of ME.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  Walmart.  Is it possible that there’s something at Walmart I might be able to get behind?

I promise you I’m not a Walmart snob.  Not totally anyway.  I can’t be.  It’s the God’s honest truth that the only place I can find certain canning jars are at Walmart.  Who would have thought?  (See, that’s much better written than then “who’da thunk it?” I originally typed.)  I don’t look down on people who shop at Walmart.  Well, I don’t look down at all people.  I save my partial-Walmart snobbiness for certain people.  Who those people are, I won’t tell.  🙂 Yes, just wonder if it’s YOU.

Nah, but really, I don’t blame everyone.  I blame certain people like a woman in this documentary I watched last year (wish I could remember the name) who in the course of one minute, blamed China for our trade imbalance and the reason she’s out of a job, and then spoke about how she only shopped at Walmart.  I wanted to hit my head against the wall.  It’s not China’s fault.  We have only ourselves and our love of cheap, cheap goods to blame.

In The Walmart Effect, this love is deeply documented.  It includes the usual stuff we all know about Walmart, how willing it is to buy sweat-shop goods, how it forces smaller suppliers (and everyone’s smaller than Walmart these days) into unsustainable arrangements, and of course, the low wages and lack of benefits they offer their employees.

But in addition to that, what’s interesting about this book is that it talks about the effect Walmart has had on this society.  To quote Kerry Walters, a reviewer of the book, who put it much more succinctly than I could have, “Walmart has trained the American consumer to expect and to demand low prices, and to immediately suspect that any commodity that has a higher price tag than its Wal-Mart equivalent must be a rip-off. The Wal-Mart ethos, in other words, has replaced traditional consumer concern for high quality with low cost as the primary criterion.”

Check out this article I found from 2003 regarding the example of Vlasic pickles.  Vlasic is a fairly “big” name. I’ve heard of it (and I don’t hear of much, so that means something. :)) In the late 1990s Vlasic had a gallon-sized jar of pickles (12lbs!) that Walmart decided to sell for the astonishingly low price of $2.97.  Vlasic, of course, wanted to sell its item through Walmart because it would get its name out to the masses.  “Look, Vlasic pickles! How great are they?!” So Vlasic, of course, agreed to it.  But in fact, they (and Walmart) only made about a cent per gallon jar of pickles sold; that’s how low the price was.  Walmart wanted to sell it that low so that it would draw customers into their stores, and Vlasic agreed to that price to get its brand in people’s minds.  The hope for them was – get people to like our brand, we will make up the price through other pickles we sell.  Because Vlasic really made their money from sliced pickles, not whole pickles like the ones in the gallon jars sold by Walmart.

And the gallon jars of pickles sold.  Boy, did they sell!  They flew off the shelves.  Sounds great for Vlasic and Walmart, right?  Well, great for Walmart.  But what happened for Vlasic is that the price for the whole pickles at Walmart was so low, people who used to buy their other pickles (from which Vlasic made its money) stopped buying those spears and chips and ONLY bought Walmart pickles.  So Vlasic was only making $.01 from every jar sold instead of a hefty markup.  It was LOSING money.

Of course, Vlasic couldn’t survive that way.  They told Walmart they needed to increase the price, and Walmart refused.  They also threatened to stop buying any other products from Vlasic if they increased the prices on JUST the gallon of whole pickles.  So, as you see, Vlasic was….wait for it…in a pickle.

Now, one can blame Vlasic to a certain extent, because lots of times defenders of capitalism (of which I am one, at least partially :)) say, “It’s America!  Vlasic shouldn’t have been so dumb as to get into that agreement!” or “Who cares about Vlasic?  I’m getting food cheaply! It’s #1 I need to look out for here.”

But Vlasic represents a lot of things in this country. When Vlasic is (which supposedly went bankrupt a few years ago – not from the gallon pickles, though, I read) is lost, you lose American jobs, American work product, and with it American ability to buy things.  So, while I can say, “too bad, so sad” for Vlasic, I recall that it’s not the bigwigs at Vlasic that were really hurt, but the pickle cutters on the floor down below.

Which is why I’m not a huge fan of Walmart.  But, believe it or not, this blog post wasn’t supposed to be all about how Walmart is hurting or not hurting this country.  It’s about this article I was recently alerted to in The Atlantic, entitled The Great Grocery Smackdown.  In the article, it discusses how Walmart is possibly trying to get into the business of selling sustainably raised food.

To be sure, I, like the author of this article, was/am skeptical.  Heritage Agriculture is apparently a little-known program initiated by Walmart to encourage local farms and producers to sell their produce to Walmart.  According to the article, “Walmart says it wants to revive local economies and communities that lost out when agriculture became centralized in large states.”

It isn’t, however, concentrating on heirloom varieties, but perhaps that’s just too small a subset for them to get into right now.  Just managing locally grown items, hybrid or GM or not, will probably take a lot of effort.

The author of this article undertook a  blind taste test with 16 tasters with organic foods bought from Walmart and Whole Foods.  The results were pretty evenly split (you can read the article to find out which items from Walmart beat out Whole Foods and vice versa).  But to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care.

That might be because my last foray into Whole Foods was in college eleventy billion years ago (ok, 10, and I went to school in NYC, what do you expect?) and I don’t know that in my everyday life those are my two choices.  I don’t have a Supercenter Walmart where I live and I certainly don’t have a Whole Foods.  I guess what I’m saying is that Whole Foods is put forth in this  article like it’s the gold standard, which I wholeheartedly disagree with.

I keep hearing how Whole Foods is a status symbol, and it’s something, living where I do, that I honestly have no knowledge of.  Whether or not they are great or just overrated, I don’t really care.  What I do care about is the attempt at bringing local and organic foods to the masses.  It’s why I tend to patronize one supermarket over the other in my area (when I have to go, and it’s Hannaford for those who want to know).  So in this respect, I wholeheartedly applaud Walmart.

But I’m a cynical person, and I’m cynical about this new initiative by Walmart.  Perhaps I would just need to see the Ts & Cs of the contracts with these local farmers, but I’d be very afraid that they would have them over the barrel just like they had Vlasic. Perhaps even more so, since they are even smaller and might have less commercial acumen.  And perhaps not initially, but eventually.  It’s been their business model for about 20 years now, and it’s worked out quite nicely for them.  Why would this be any different?

Also too, there’s this.  What is deemed a local farm?  Could conglomerates that happen to be located in the area take over?  While Kummer noted that individual farms were identified at the Super Walmart near Boston, they weren’t at the Austin one.  Why not put exactly where the food came from?

Again, though, I am really happy to see this development.  In an ideal world, where Walmart is a great civic citizen, it could be at the forefront of helping its customers learn more about their local food and provide a new sales outlet to support the communities in which it resides.

Kummer states, and correctly so:

In an ideal world, people would buy their food directly from the people who grew or caught it, or grow and catch it themselves. But most people can’t do that. If there were a Walmart closer to where I live, I would probably shop there.

Most important, the vast majority of Walmarts carry a large range of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. And Walmarts serve many “food deserts,” in large cities and rural areas—ironically including farm areas. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the world’s largest retailer is set on rebuilding local economies it had a hand in destroying, if not literally, then in effect. But I’m convinced that if it wants to, a ruthlessly well-run mechanism can bring fruits and vegetables back to land where they once flourished, and deliver them to the people who need them most.

It may not be an ideal world out there, but I do believe that more local buying can be done, if we don’t buy into the “Walmart effect.”  In either case, I’ll believe it of Walmart when I see it.  And so far, at least in my neck of the woods, I don’t see it.


2 Responses

  1. This was a really interesting read, Chelle. Like you, I’m skeptical over Walmart, but I do think it’s a interesting idea to have local foods there.

  2. This was great Chelle. I just bought Michael Pollan’s food rule and one is that you have to spend money to eat well. The Walmart philosophy of sell it cheap really gets us nowhere.

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