URBANA, Ill. — Wal-Mart Stores has been making efforts to sell more local produce in its Illinois locations and is reaching out to Illinois farmers with the help of the University of Illinois' MarketMaker, an online tool designed to help retail and restaurant buyers identify local Illinois farmers who grow and raise a variety of foods that meet specific quality standards.
Wal-Mart is already working with several farmers, but because of the scale of its business, more local farmers are being sought out. However, some farmers are leery of signing on for various reasons, including the costs and logistical challenges associated with working with a retailer of Wal-Mart's magnitude, according to a report this month by Crain's Chicago Business.
“I think the challenge is: Can a smaller or midsize farmer profitably sell into a system like this?” Darlene Knipe, specialist in marketing and business development at the University of Illinois Extension, and a founder of the MarketMaker program, told SN. Knipe added that Wal-Mart has been working with the program since late February 2008.
“I think Wal-Mart is trying to figure out what is a good system that would really make them sort of farmer-friendly. That's a motto we'd all like to figure out, so I think that's the biggest challenge.”
Knipe acknowledged that Wal-Mart's big-business reputation may be working against it in that regard, but said she thinks that the retailer is re-evaluating its business practices in an effort to respond to the demand for local produce. This is also why it sought out the MarketMaker project — to better accommodate local farmers and build relationships.
“When we were first approached, we wondered how sincere this was,” Knipe said. “Is it just a marketing tactic, or do they genuinely intend to change the way they do business? I had seen some affirmation from a lot of sources that would normally be skeptical that made me think that this is an effort that's worth checking into. So, we started having conversations with them.”
Indeed, Wal-Mart is rethinking its processes and policies and has acknowledged that in order to work with small farmers, the company will have to make some concessions that it might not normally make with large suppliers.
“It's hand-holding,” Ron McCormick, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of produce and floral, Wal-Mart, told Crain's. “Because of the nature of local, small agriculture, a food retailer will have to be more tolerant.”
Knipe said she hopes the effort will become a win-win situation, and if it is successful for all parties involved, she'd like to see it expanded to other farm products as well. Currently, the focus is specifically on local produce.
“I think the local food movement has a lot of benefits to offer consumers,” she said. “Regardless of how you feel about Wal-Mart, they're omnipresent in the food industry, and so if there's some fear about this, and they're willing to change their processes to make local foods more available, then I think that that's a hopeful thing.”