A columnist in a Northern Vermont newspaper, who called herself the ‘Hilltop Housewife,” once wrote about her horror upon finding that a Wal-Mart store in the middle of dairy farm country in Tafts Corner, Vermont was selling nothing but milk from New York state. No local farmers’ products were on the shelf. And in the town of Billerica, Massachusetts, a regional developer tried to buy-out the last working farm in that Boston suburb, but a land trust purchased the land out from under Wal-Mart, and the Griggs farm was saved. Countless times across America, actively cultivated farmland is paved over in a blanket of asphalt to create huge impervious commercial centers known as Wal-Mart superstores. This one company alone has been responsible for the devastation of more farm acreage than any other retailer doing business today. But, according to a press release from Wal-Mart this week, the farmers and the retailers should be friends. The world’s largest retailer announced yesterday that it is promoting a “Salute to America’s Farmers” program, and a farm in Indiana — Melon Acres — is being showcased during the month of May. “Salute to America’s Farmers” spotlights “Wal-Mart’s commitment to purchase from local growers for distribution to stores in their areas in support of locally grown agricultural products,” Wal-Mart announced. The company is buying 55,000 pounds of asparagus from this farm in Oaktown, Indiana, and using that deal to “provide visibility to the company’s commitment to… .growers around the country. “Wal-Mart buys more United States agricultural products than any other retailer in the world,” Wal-Mart’s press release says, “and we’re proud to introduce Salute to America’s Farmers as a tribute to our country’s growers, underscoring our company-wide commitment to farmers across the United States. We understand that consumers want to purchase quality products that help support the local economy and we’re proud of our ability to bring wholesome, home-grown selections to our customers in Indiana. This commitment not only allows us to offer fresh, quality selections but also generate savings on distribution costs that we can pass on to our customers.” The press release quotes one of the owners of Melon Acres as saying, “Wal-Mart is a major factor in our communities. When people say they’re going out to buy food, it really means they’re going to Wal-Mart.” Melon Acres claims that because of Wal-Mart’s “delivery system, our product can be in the Wal-Mart coolers in one or two days as opposed to six to seven days for imports. That means a large difference in the quality and flavor of the asparagus.”
Wal-Mart launched this “Salute to America’s Farmer” program in September of 2006, and is “showcasing local growers” around the country. Wal-Mart has signage in its stores showing local produce. Wal-Mart calls its stores “local Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets” even though the profits from those stores are not invested locally, and even though their stores put out of business many grocery stores that were actually owned and operated by locally-raised merchants. These local, independent grocers are either out of business today, or struggling to survive. They bought local farm produce to a much larger degree, in most cases, than Wal-Mart. The local farmers who praise Wal-Mart know that the chainstore retailers put out of business the local merchants who used to sell their farm products on their local shelves. This same company builds its stores on what used to be agricultural acres. Wal-Mart says that altogether it has 61,000 U.S. suppliers — including local farmers — but by far the major trade of this company is Chinese imports. Some products, like asparagus from the Melon Acres, make a good symbolic front for Wal-Mart to display, while importing vast amounts of Chinese products on container ships that make the Melon Acre farm look like the head of a pin. The 76 Wal-Mart supercenters in Indiana have been a major disruption to local merchants and grocers in the Hoosier state, and have contributed to the loss of farmland in Indiana, the loss of more than 2,200 acres of land just to accommodate the supercenters alone. Wal-Mart’s “Salute” to local farmers better roll out quickly, because more and more acres of local farmland are being destroyed, and the local supply chain being replaced with huge international corporations like Wal-Mart. Several British Members of Parliament have filed a “Sustainable Communities Bill” which is currently before Parliament and which seeks to give local authorities powers to resist the impact of multinational companies and to protect local markets and to reduce ‘food miles’, etc. A group of national organizations including the Association of Convenience Stores, the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth and the Small and Family Farms Alliance are supporting the new bill. As one lawmaker noted, “Supermarkets have now become so powerful that they can entirely dictate market conditions. Local independent shops — many of which have been trading in our local towns for decades — are completely at the mercy of these multinational companies. Supermarkets create a greater dependence on the car, extend ‘food-miles’ and undermine the viability of local farmers, growers and other suppliers.” And as Wal-Mart salutes farmers, a report being released this week by the American Farmland Trust shows that the state of Delaware, Wal-Mart’s real corporate headquarters, has lost nearly 400,000 acres of farmland since 1950 due to unplanned growth. In Ohio, state officials this week complained that agricultural preservation programs cannot compete with the prices farmers are being offered for their land on the outskirts of major urban areas, where Ohio is losing most of its prime farmland. According to the American Farmland Trust, half of the two billion acres of land in America is working agricultural land. But every minute of every day, we lose another two acres of agricultural land to development. Wal-Mart today is sitting on an estimated 26 million square feet of empty stores that the company has closed. The giant retailer has squandered valuable land, developed thousands of acres of open space and agricultural land to saturate our communities with stores it does not need. All the asparagus in America will never replace the local farms we have lost. We should salute local farmers, but not while wearing a Wal-Mart vest.