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Walmart, savior of Hernando County's farms?

In Hernando, we have one of the highest per-capita concentrations of Walmart outlets in the state and thousands of acres of under-used farmland.

Which is why I felt duty-bound to follow up on a story in the current issue of Atlantic magazine ( www.theatlantic.com).

Titled The Great Grocery Smackdown, it reports the stunning news that Walmart — the infamous trampler of local economies — has gotten serious about buying fruit and vegetables from farmers near its stores.

Just as surprising were the results of a taste test in Austin, Texas, that pitted products from Whole Foods, the Tiffany of organic markets, against those from Walmart: About half of the Supercenter's fresh foods, including almonds, salad greens and spinach, came out the clear winner on flavor, as well as, of course, totally kicking butt on price.

The Walmart almonds, for example, were described as "aromatic,'' "pure,'' "mellow'' and "yummy.''

There was more potential ad copy in this quote from Charles Fishman, author of the Wal-Mart Effect, a 2006 book about the chain's massive influence on global commerce and culture: "You won't recognize the grocery section of a Supercenter.''

Well, maybe if you don't live in a county with three Supercenters and a Sam's Club. (And, for good measure, a distribution center.)

Just about all of us visit one of these at least semi-regularly. And if the chain has made any major changes to the produce section at the Brooksville Supercenter, they must have come so gradually I didn't notice — though I should add that the Atlantic article gave me a new appreciation for the store's displays. Most of the fruits and vegetables were loose, in open bins, with none of those wrapped-up Styrofoam trays good for nothing but wasting plastic and hiding brown spots.

I did find a few items from Florida, including grapefruit (I would hope so), tomatoes and several varieties of peppers. But some of the suppliers were agricultural giants that distribute nationally, so the presence of their products in the Brooksville store said little about the chain's commitment to local agriculture. The head of cauliflower I saw grown by A. Duda & Sons of Oviedo, for example, could have just as easily been shipped to Atlanta.

More disappointing were the commonplace offerings from exotic locations — Honduran cucumbers and Chilean grapes — as well as piles of produce from California, including every last one of the navel oranges. Surely Walmart could have found a supplier closer to Brooksville.

Frank Grisafi, a friendly guy I met stocking apples, offered a plausible explanation for the lack of, say, Plant City strawberries and Ruskin tomatoes: this year's big freezes.

Walmart announced its push to find local suppliers in July 2008. And before the recent cold weather hit, said Grisafi, 69, I would have seen lots of products from Florida, along with large signs saying "We support local farmers,'' Grisafi said. "We had them all over the place.''

Joann Beasley, who grows a variety of vegetables on her farm east of Brooksville, has seen these signs.

"I'm just not sure I believe them,'' she said.

Having heard a radio advertisement touting Walmart's local produce last year — and with a huge harvest of good-looking squash on hand — Beasley called the Brooksville store. She was referred to company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., which didn't show much interest.

"It was a lot of aggravation just to get through to somebody,'' she said.

Stacy Strickland, director of the county's Cooperative Extension Service, said it is possible the company buys local produce, though it would be difficult to tell because it would probably be distributed by brokers. And at this point, he said, blueberries are probably the only crop Hernando produces consistently enough and in large enough quantities to supply a big chain.

Which is one reason the dream is still a ways off.

What is this dream, exactly? Well, for starters, the same as it is for buy-local advocates everywhere: fewer fuel-consuming miles of shipping and more flavor and nutrition. In Hernando, the dream is that retail outlets such as Walmart could help revive agriculture in our county, which once produced marketable quantities of row crops such as squash, melons and eggplant, as well as citrus. If we can't break the habit of big-box shopping, we could at least capture more of the proceeds.

But Fishman, whom I called after reading the story, said we should also be aware of the trade-off that comes with dealing with Walmart, which is able to offer low prices to customers because it demands them of suppliers.

I could picture the company putting the squeeze on Beasley, who has built her business selling at farmers markets and independent groceries such as Murphy's Market in Spring Hill. She would also have to grow what Walmart wants, when it wants it, possibly sacrificing better-paying customers.

Fishman said the best thing for us to do, now that we have Walmart's promise to support local agriculture, is to hold the company to it: Keep an eye on the origins of the produce in their bins; check to see if local suppliers really benefit: make sure Walmart isn't just sending out a marketing message to capitalize on a dietary fad.

"Let's see how they are doing in a year or two years or three years,'' he said.

Yes, let's. I've never felt like bragging about living in the Walmart capital of Florida. But if it helps us become, say, the state's blueberry or zucchini capital, I wouldn't mind it at all.

Walmart, savior of Hernando County's farms? 02/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2010 6:33pm]

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