Wal-Mart joins U.S. crop-tour fever seeking food chain edge
By Karl Plume
CHICAGO, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Retail giant Wal-Mart joined a group of volunteers counting corn ears and soybean pods in fields in the United States recently in a clear sign traditional crop tours are expanding their appeal from farmers and traders to all those with a stake in the U.S. food chain.
These annual trips to gather detailed on-the-ground information on crops in the world's biggest grains producer have long been seen as a way to glean market-moving details not found in commodity analyst notes or government reports.
But now their popularity is booming as a chance for those usually far from the field to develop relationships with growers themselves and to earn mud-on-the-boots credibility with clients and suppliers.
The Pro Farmer crop tour last month involved 120 people, double the number a decade ago, from countries spanning Switzerland to Argentina, who travelled roughly 1,500 miles (2,500 km) across the Midwest and waded into more than 1,300 fields.
Wal-Mart, known for its low prices, sent representatives for the first time on this tour, after trying out a wheat trip two years ago. It has a rising interest in food supplies, having grown its grocery business from around 7 percent a decade ago to over 70 percent of sales now.
"We are always looking for ways to better understand our business. We attend farm tours to learn about crops so we can make smart buying decisions in our efforts to pass on savings to our customers," said Tim Robinson, Wal-Mart's director of dry grocery, who traveled from Ohio to Minnesota with the tour.
After scouting a corn field in Ford County, Illinois, a roadside encounter with a farmer gave Robinson just such knowledge. The farmer said his crop, slated for delivery to snacks maker Frito-Lay, whose products pack Wal-Mart store shelves, was by far his best ever.
That revelation echoed what Robinson had encountered all week: massive corn yields that have reduced grain costs for his suppliers to the lowest in years. Continuación...