Thousands of tourists flock to Lane Southern Orchards in central Georgia every year to stroll the orchards, watch employees pack fruit and, of course, taste the sweet, juicy peaches the farm has produced for more than 100 years. Those same peaches – the ones that draw visitors to sample peach cobbler and ice cream in the farm’s café – also are sold in regional Walmart stores.
“Customers have become more educated about where their food comes from. People like to see and smell where their food was made,” said Duke Lane III, VP of Sales at Lane Southern Orchards.
The Lane family has grown peaches and pecans for generations and supplies several major retailers along the East Coast. In fact, some Lane Southern Orchards peaches can be purchased at Walmart stores less than 24 hours after they were plucked from the tree, Lane said.
Walmart has been working since 2010 to double the amount of locally grown food in its stores by buying more from growers like Lane Southern Orchards. The local food program is an extension of sustainability goals the retailer set eight years ago and calls for at least 9 percent of the produce in the chain’s stores to come from within the state. Along the way, Walmart is promoting the partnerships, drawing attention to American farms and farmers.
Liz Whitney, Sourcing Manager for Walmart’s southeast division, is one of the people who works to find those farmers and decide whether they can provide enough of one product to support a Walmart distribution center. “All these operations are family operations,” she said. Overall, the company is doubling the amount of food sourced within the state where it will be sold, but a longer growing season and more diverse crops mean stores in Southern states have more locally grown produce than stores in the North.
Some of the products are regional favorites, like peaches from Georgia; others are less obvious. Cilantro sold in Walmart stores in Ohio is locally grown, for example. “(Farmers) used to only grow cilantro in Mexico, but that is a long way to go for a relatively perishable product,” said Dorn Wenninger, vice president of Walmart’s produce division – which sells more produce than any other retailer in the world.
Walmart defines locally grown as produce grown and sold within the same state. By supporting local farmers, Walmart is supporting local economies and putting money in the pockets of Walmart customers, like the farm and packing-plant employees who work at the century-old Lane Southern Orchards, company executives say.
“Obviously you are reducing food miles (the distance a food must travel to reach the consumer), but in terms of sustainability – well, you just don’t get more sustainable” than a generations-old operation like Lane Southern Orchards, Wenninger said.