Theatre of the Absurd: Wal-Mart Celebrates “Local” Farmers

The other day, I noticed this Wal-Mart press release on Walmartfacts.com when I went to find Wal-Mart's reaction to losing $78 million dollars in that Pennsylvania class action decision:
Wal-Mart Stores announced today that Illinois-based Frey Farms will be showcased during the months of September and October in conjunction with the company’s Salute to America’s Farmers program. Salute to America’s Farmers, launched this month, is a year-long campaign to spotlight Wal-Mart’s commitment to purchase from local growers for distribution to stores in their areas in support of locally grown agricultural products. Throughout the next several weeks, Frey Farms will team with Wal-Mart Stores to provide home-grown, hand-cultivated pumpkins to numerous Wal-Mart Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets in the region and provide visibility to the company’s commitment to Illinois agriculture and growers around the country.
"Wow," thought I. "That's really absurd." The most obvious reason that this is absurd is that although Wal-Mart later tells us that Frey Farms "is known for its pumpkins, melons and fall ornamentals and is also a year-round supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables," the chain is featuring the pumpkins. Pumpkins are perhaps the one piece of produce that almost nobody eats – they carve them up and stick candles in them, right? So here is the one piece of produce for which quality really doesn't matter. Indeed, if I weren't morally opposed to shopping at Wal-Mart, their pumpkins would probably be the only produce I'd buy there. Who cares how much poison it was grown with if you aren't planning on eating it? Then I Googled "Frey Farms" and the absurdity just deepened. This is from a press release by the Illinois Department of Agriculture:
This year, Frey Farms sold one million pumpkins to the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which ships them to its stores nationwide. Another 500,000 pumpkins were bought from non-contract growers and re-sold to other distribution centers and retail outlets. [Emphasis added]
Remember my post about food miles? One of the most important reasons to buy local is so that enormous amounts of fossil fuels aren't burned in the process of getting your food to you. In one breath, Wal-Mart tells us about their "commitment to purchase from local growers for distribution to stores in their areas" but then highlights a grower that's so big they contract out their growing in order to ship nationwide! In food terms, Frey Farms is only slightly more "local" for most of the country than the factories in China that make all the cheap plastic crap lining Wal-Mart's aisles nationwide. To paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that word means what Wal-Mart thinks it means. Then I found this post from "Schmootzie" the Clown at "New World Odor" which really put this environmental agitprop in perspective:
Wal-Mart is one of essentially four places where growers can sell their plant products, and they are the most steadfast in their price demands. They have plenty of farmers in Central America and China that can produce the same crops pretty cheap, and low price is all Wal-Mart is about. They tell farmers here that they'll buy crop X for $Y dollars a unit. Take it or leave it, let it rot. The cost to grow crops in America is high. Massive amounts of crops are lost to disease because we can't use the deadly chemicals growers in other countries depend upon. Labor in the U.S. is expensive, even with low-wage migrant workers. Restrictions, limits, laws, and protocols make farming in America a constant battle for a thin margin. Wal-Mart is a key player in the price fixing and offers growers slightly more than it costs the grower to produce the product. The growers have to take it, or their product will rot on the dock. This is not the happy pastoral presented in Frey Farms propaganda. A quick on-line check shows that the Frey Farms story is credible. However, from my experience they are being paraded as the example of farmer-retailer synergy, but they are absolutely an exception to the rule. If pumpkins weren't so heavy it probably would be cheaper to ship them in from abroad, and Wal-Mart wouldn't give Frey Farms a second look. Just wait!
The clown is right people. Wal-Mart cares about "local" farmers about as much as they care about following labor law (which is very little indeed).

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