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[Harper's Finest]

Dan Halpern’s “Citizen Walmart” (2012)

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The retail giant’s unlikely romance with small farmers

This Thursday, Walmart announced that it was significantly expanding the range of organic products it offers; the news came a day after Target announced partnerships with seventeen brands specializing in “natural” foods. The initiatives have prompted speculation about how farmers will fulfill the demand.

Dan Halpern investigated just that question in the July 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, looking broadly at Walmart’s move into local food and what it might mean for the country’s small farmers:

The Liuzzas said they had a close relationship with the company — “I deal with Walmart directly,” Lizzy said; “they want to know what weather we got coming up, what issues we have, they want to know everything” — but sent the paperwork and negotiated most of the deals through a third-party broker, in their case the Minnesota-based logistics giant C. H. Robinson. The prices Walmart gave them were good and consistent, and at every turn, the family felt, Walmart had treated them fairly and understood their needs.

Still, Liuzza had not forgotten why he had needed Walmart in the first place. He had been a big supplier for another supermarket chain — until one day he wasn’t. “We was really doing a lot of things to grow, and all of a sudden, we was still growing but they was done with us. It wasn’t over quality, it wasn’t over prices, it was just a change in direction they was going. The small little deal didn’t matter anymore,” he said. “It scared me — it like to broke me. But my son don’t have that memory. The Walmart deal’s everything for him. When it changed, I looked at my daddy and said, ‘What did we do? What did we do to deserve this?’ But Kevin don’t remember that. . . . He’s taking on a heap of debt to scale up for Walmart, a heap of debt.”

Read the rest of Dan Halpern’s “Citizen Walmart.”

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