Why Walmart’s Latest PR Blunder Means Ag Research Cash

Back in February, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association complained that Walmart "isn't doing enough to help local farmers" in the Tampa Bay Times. The association's executive director, Ted Campbell, said, "Mexican-grown strawberries are showing up in Florida stores including the Walmart in Plant City, the winter strawberry capital of the world." Conspicuously absent, of course, were locally grown berries.

About three weeks later, the Walmart Foundation gave $3 million to the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability (CARS) at the University of Arknsas. CARS was authorized to dole out the money for agricultural research on strawberries in any way it saw fit.

CARS reviewed 56 proposals, awarded a total of 18 grants, and plans to issue grantee progress reports in September 2014. Curt Rom, horticulture professor and CARS official, has explained the organization's logic in redistributing the money. It wants to move "the science and technology for alternative strawberry production systems and areas away from laboratories and experiment farms into the producers' fields." Rom said:

The goal is to increase local and regional production of strawberries, to reduce the environmental impact of production, to reduce transportation distances between farms and markets or consumers, to reduce product loss in the supply-value chain and improve the environmental and economic sustainability of the production system.

One of 18 researchers to see a payout was Cary Rivard, Kansas State University assistant professor. Rivard got $67,000 for a project called "Development and Adoption of Annual, Plasticulture Strawberry Production in the Great Plains." He will use the money to convince more local farmers to grow strawberries, reduce crop failures through distribution and production innovations, and explore new methods for irrigating these fruits along with other, similar fruits. (See Walmart Foundation: Grants for Public Health.)

Likewise, Walmart faced a huge class-action lawsuit concerning a disparity in how it pays women and men back in 2011. Within a matter of months, PR Newswire blew up with information on Walmart's brand-new Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative.

Seems like a simple pattern to exploit. Wait until Walmart gets sued for something — and it won't be long, because it gets sued as often as coffee drinkers micturate — and then toss the foundation some proposals for programs that afford Walmart the opportunity to restore lost public face.