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Small Farms Receive Boost From Sysco and WalMart

VERMONT (October 20, 2010)—This has been the mantra of the localvore movement, which is made up of people who are concerned about the quality of food they eat, the supply chain through which that food is provided and the fate of local farms.

In addition, schools, hospitals, businesses with their own cafeterias and others are demanding locally grown food of high quality.

The restaurant at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital features daily specials made with local ingredients, as does the Riverview Cafe, TJ Buckley’s and The Dorset Inn.

The food co-ops in both Brattleboro and Putney put local items on their shelves and in their display cases.

And then there are the farm-to-table and farm-to-schools initiative in Vermont.

The actual effect of such intent is hard to measure, however.

While it makes us feel good to shop at farmers’ markets, purchase local meat or fruit directly from the producer, eat at a restaurant that serves up local fare or become a member of a CSA, those efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who shop at conventional supermarkets supplied by agribusiness.

But now two major players are jumping on board the local food wagon.

Sysco, a $37 billion food distributor famous for shipping frozen foods and canned goods to fast food restaurants, university cafeterias and hospitals around the country, has initiated local food networks in its regional hubs.

Wal-Mart, not knownfor its local-friendly business practices, has launched its Heritage Agriculture program, selling food grown in-state.

In Sysco’s case, restaurants, institutions and schools began to ask for local products as a way of offering healthy food and building connections with local farmers.

Sysco called it "a new value chain approach" that could be duplicated at Sysco’s independent operating companies around the country.

Sysco is even partnering with Amish and Mennonite farmers in Kansas, artisanal bakers, coffee roasters and dairies in Oregon, and hundreds of small New England farmers, according to Hannah Wallace of thefastertimes.com.

It doesn’t necessarily equate to less of a carbon impact, however.

"Sysco logs less ‘food miles,’ driving 1,700 cases of organic greens from California to New York per case, than a farmer who drives eight cases 40 miles to a farmer’s market and back," wrote Wallace.

In Wal-Mart’s case, its goal is to get 10 percent of its product from local growers. In Canada, that goal is 30 percent.

Wal-Mart is also sponsoring a program to provide training and infrastructure to small- and medium-sized farms to help them get their products to its stores.

A small- or medium-sized farm are those of 50 acres or less.

In the South, Dole is pushing North Carolina tobacco growers to grow produce instead, according to Jim Prevor on perishablepundit.com.

Is this just a case of big national companies trying to expand their markets by taking advantage of a genuine grass-roots movement?

Let’s just say it wouldn’t be the first time.

But in all reality, without local distribution hubs, getting food from farm to table is a struggle. A small farmer doesn’t have enough time in the day to take care of his or her crops and market and transport produce to stores.

And though efforts are being made to make fresh food available to those who need it the most -- children and low-income families -- most of the people who shop at farmers’ markets and co-ops are the people who can afford to pay a premium prices -- a $4 heritage tomato and a $15 t-bone steak -- for their food.

So while it makes many of us cringe to think of Wal-Mart or Sysco as on the leading edge of providing mass-marketed local food, there has to be some good coming out of this, if just the awareness that there are small-time farmers out there in need of a place to sell their products.

Wal-Mart and Sysco have the ability to get these farmers all on the same page while reducing their costs of bringing their product to market.

It’s not the solution the localvore movement is looking for, but perhaps there is a kernel of possibility to be found in these new models, the possibility that small farms can be saved, even brought back.

There is no doubt that Vermont, and all of the Northeast, would benefit from such a renaissance.

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