WHITSTRAN -- On a windswept slope where vineyards end and the Rattlesnake Hills begin, Josh Fewel and his workers prepare the dusty ground for chili peppers destined not for canneries far away but for local grocery chains.
"If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be able to survive," said the 30-year-old manager of Fewel Farms, which grows everything from sweet corn to ornamental gourds about 13 miles northeast of Prosser.
Small farms in the Yakima Valley, including Fewel Farms, are catching onto the "locavore" ethos, the consumer-driven movement to purchase food grown nearby.
He's not talking about a fruit stand, either. He means Safeway, Fred Meyer and Walmart, giant corporations that have responded to pressure to support local farmers, he said.
Walmart, known for scouring the globe for a deal, encourages its store managers to sell locally grown food, Fewel said.
"They're by far the easiest to work with," Fewel said, "as far as giving us their estimates and hitting their estimates."
That means when Fewel is laying drip irrigation tape and plastic beds for peppers, watermelons and peas, he knows how much to plant because he knows how much Walmart will buy. That contrasts with the true spot market, where he relies on hope each year that his yield will sell.
Sharon Heer, a Yakima produce marketing manager who represents Fewel and other Valley farmers, sees the trend in other row crops that don't store or ship well.
Granger's R.A. Rasmussen and Sons, one of her clients, has seen the boon to its onions and cucumbers, she said.
As a result, the Valley's vegetable market, though tiny in comparison to the biggies -- wine grapes, apples and cherries -- has grown beyond a cute niche.
"They're more than just a little sideline," said Heer, a 20-year veteran of produce marketing. "They generate a lot of value for this Valley and they support a lot of jobs."
Figures on the size of the locavore market aren't available yet -- it'snot a well-defined agricultural category.
But the effect on employment is definite.
At peak harvest, Fewel Farms will hire 350 employees.
The farm is one of the largest decorative pumpkin suppliers in the United States, Heer said.
Walmart, responding to customer feedback, announced plans in 2010 to double the amount of locally purchased fruits and vegetables to 9 percent of its U.S. total.
The Bentonville, Ark., chain plans to meet and surpass that mark well before then, said Brooke Buchanan, a company spokeswoman. Details will be revealed in a "globalresponsibility report" on April 16, she said.
The movement should result in fresher produce for customers, a smaller environmental footprint because shipping distances shrink and shipping costs for the stores, she said.
"It's not only good for our business, it's good for the communities we serve," she said.
Other chain grocers have followed suit, The Wall Street Journal reported. Supervalu, which owns the Albertsons chain, told the newspaper it buys between 25 percent and 40 percent of its produce locally.
Companies define local differently. Some use a radius from the store; Walmart uses state lines. It's imperfect and sometimes arbitrary, Buchanan said.
For example, Fewel Farms owns 150 acres of watermelons in Hermiston, where the growing season starts a little earlier. The melons that end up in Yakima and Tri-Cities stores won't count toward Walmart's goal, Buchanan said.
"You have to define it somehow," she said.