The Supply Side: Arkansas rice farmer part of Walmart’s sustainable farm focus

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,000 views 

Dustin Faulkner walks his 3,500-acre farm in Harrisburg just south of Jonesboro inspecting the growth of rice that will be sold to Walmart for its Great Value Long Grain brand. Faulkner has been selling rice to Walmart since 2021 and is one of several farms in the region taking part in sustainable farm practices.

Dustin Faulkner, a third-generation Arkansas farmer, is part of an aggressive plan by the world’s largest retailer to save billions of gallons of water in rice farming.

Faulkner lives south of Jonesboro in Harrisburg, where he oversees 26 Ditch Farm Partnership with his wife Kristy and teenage daughters Alyson and Abby. The family farms around 3,500 acres, with about one-third of that being rice he sells to Walmart. He also sells rice and wheat to beer maker Anheuser-Busch while improving sustainable farming practices.

He said running a regenerative farm is important because the land and its resources must be preserved for future generations. He was introduced to Walmart by third-party sustainability partner Indigo Ag, whose mission is to connect farmers to higher-valued markets while using sustainability practices.

At its recent shareholder events, Walmart highlighted the Arkansas rice industry farmers saying that 70% of the Great Value Long Grain rice on its shelves comes from Arkansas farmers. This year 60% of that total comes from regenerative farms like Faulkner’s. Walmart is working to ensure that 100% of the rice it sells is sourced from regenerative farms.

Melody Richard, vice president of pantry for Walmart U.S., said working with farmers to offer more sustainably grown products takes up about 25% of her time as a merchant buyer. She said it’s important for Walmart to offer sustainably sourced products at a value.

“Consumers today want transparency about the products they buy and consume, so we at Walmart continue to expand programs through agri-partnerships to deliver on our sustainability promise for our customers,” Richard said.

It takes about 200 gallons of water to make a pound of rice. She said that Arkansas farmers are using more water-saving techniques powered by technology to reduce water and fertilizer usage, which is better for the environment. Richard also said aquifers that serve the agricultural region of northeast Arkansas must be protected because overuse will ruin the resource. Richard said Texas and the San Joaquin Valley of California had already made that mistake.

“We have to protect that precious resource for future farming generations, and that’s also a priority of farmers everywhere I go,” she said.

After working with Indigo on more sustainable farm practices, Faulkner began supplying rice to Walmart in 2021. He said rice farmers no longer flood the fields, which wastes fertilizer. Farmers now use poly-pipe irrigation in each inlet. Each levy is measured, and the appropriate number of holes is punched to ensure the crop is watered evenly with no runoff. He said the water savings are enormous.

Indigo said all Arkansas farmers in the rice program with Walmart are on track this year to save 2.2 billion gallons of groundwater compared to regionally standard practices since inception in 2021. Faulkner said there is also no excess runoff of nitrogen fertilizer which is expensive for the farmer and bad for the environment.

“We are using less water and fertilizer and not seeing any reduction in yield. Our farm yields about 8.1 million pounds of rice annually,” he said.

Working through Indigo’s Market+ Source program, which requires a farm to use verifiably sustainable practices, Faulkner said he could receive an additional premium for the rice he sells to Walmart and the wheat and rice he sells to Anheuser-Busch. Faulkner said he has partnered with Indigo for the past four years.

“Working with Indigo and Walmart has brought a higher level of expertise on sustainable farming practices. We have always thought about it, but by providing incentives and oversight, we are running a more sustainable operation and also earning a higher market price,” Faulkner said.

Caroline Ahn, communications director at Indigo, said the company has worked with more than 100 Arkansas farmers on sustainability practices that limit methane and carbon dioxide emissions in addition to the freshwater savings. Based in Boston, Ahn said Indigo continues to expand its programs with Walmart and other end buyers. Faulkner said Indigo and Walmart verify the sustainability practices on his farm to pay the premium he receives on each bushel.

Walmart said sourcing its Great Value Long Grain Rice from regenerative farms in Arkansas is part of the retailer’s comprehensive sustainability initiative. Through the Indigo program, Walmart said the rice project focuses on incentivizing landscape-level changes by working with multiple partners in the supply chain. Walmart said the acreage in the program has expanded to 13,100 acres this year.

Faulkner said having partners like Indigo and Walmart and advanced technology have improved his farm operations and profitability. He said farming had become high tech with drones being used to check for storm damage, and sensors are also placed in drying bins. Faulkner said the sensors could track bin moisture levels to ensure quality products. Before the electronic sensor, he said the moisture test was done by hand with someone climbing into the bin to measure moisture — a dangerous job physically.

“Every piece of equipment used on our farm records data that is sent to me and uploaded into a general program for me to analyze metrics like moisture data, growth and yield estimates. I spend a lot of time in my office while the crops are being monitored electronically,” he said.

Faulkner said partnering with Indigo and end users like Walmart and Anheuser-Busch has been a great way to maintain sustainability in the challenging world of agriculture.

“These partnerships also carry us through tough times. As an Arkansas farmer, I am so proud to help feed America and have my rice sold at Walmart.”

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.