March 16, 2010

Massive tomato-growing operation in Madison is thriving

BY DOUG HARLOW Staff Writer

MADISON -- In an economy punctuated these days with labor concessions, layoffs and diminishing returns on investments, there is one company that is finding success and it's right in our own backyard.

Staff file photo by David Leaming BIG GREEN: Shawn Belsower, an employee at Backyard Farms in Madison, walks past the huge greenhouse in 2007. By the end of this year, company officials say, a second, 18-acre greenhouse will be completed.

Staff photo by David Leaming

JUST PICKED: Backyard Farms’ original “Backyard Beauty” variety has been replaced by a variety of tomato types

Staff file photo by Jim Evans

Backyard Farms currently employs about 100 full-time people in its 24-acre tomato greenhouse off River Road in rural Madison. Benefits include medical, dental, life insurance and a 401(k) plan.

By the end of this year, company officials say, a second, 18-acre greenhouse will be completed, and with it as many as 75 new jobs at competitive local wages.

"We've got more than enough demand to handle the expansion," said Tim Cunniff, executive vice president of sales and marketing. "It's a healthy, vibrant business -- the demand for the product is there with good pricing, with a good distribution model. We're very bullish on the business."

Tomato varieties are grown in a hydroponics system, fed by fertilizers and the slow drip of water collected on site from rain water and snow melt. The plants are grown in rock wool, a man-made mineral fiber, and are pollinated inside the greenhouse by common bumblebees, Cunniff said.

There are automatic grow lamps, heated gutters and thermal blankets to keep the growing tomatoes comfortable, even in the middle of a Maine winter.

Cunniff said that if a local gardener is doing everything right in his or her own backyard during the summer, growing tomatoes, that product would compare favorably with the Backyard Farms tomato -- year-round.

"That's why I say, we'll cover you the other 10 months out of the year," he said. "We're trying to replicate that as close as possible, but it's sort of trying to replicate your first kiss, the first time you fell in love -- the experience that you have when you eat a very, very good tomato out of your own backyard."

Vine-ripened tomatoes are harvested all year long, he said.

"We're really excited about the expansion here in Madison," said Dana Berry, a former Madison selectman and current head of human resources at Backyard Farms. "The town, county, state have been very helpful in everything that Backyard Farms has tried to do.

"As we go forward over the next several months, we're going to be hiring, at least initially, between 30 and 40 people to work in the greenhouse. Then later on, in July and August, we'll hire another 30-plus to work either in picking or packing."

Cunniff said Backyard Farms got its start in 2005 when the land was purchased. Construction of the massive greenhouse began in 2006.

The first tomato plants went in October 2006, and first shipment went out in February 2007.

Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci picked the first ripe tomato on a cold day in January 2007.

Backyard Farms is owned by Devonshire Investors of Boston, a private equity division of Fidelity Investments.

"The thesis behind the business investment was to be able to have a localized source, where we could keep a high-quality product -- keep the tomatoes on the vine as long as possible -- limit our distribution to the Northeast and give people a better tomato," Cunniff said.

The work thesis, he said, was to locate in an area where there was a large number of people who were willing to work.

"We wanted to employ local people," he said. "We didn't want to bring in migrant workers; our commitment was that we wanted to teach a trade that would be sustainable year-round so we wouldn't have seasonal layoffs."

New England agriculture at the time, he said, was dying a slow death.

The original greenhouse in Madison was one million square feet in size, the largest single building in Maine, Cunniff said. Tomatoes are shipped to supermarkets as far away as Maryland, but mostly are sold in New England.

"Thirty-eight percent of our product stays in the state of Maine," he said. "And the balance goes to Massachusetts and the rest of New England."

Berry said 90 percent of the workforce lives within 15 miles of Backyard Farms.

"Most people are born and raised here; they worked for some of the other facilities -- we used to have a good deal of manufacturing in the area -- some of them were displaced as a result of those facilities closing," he said.

Madison Town Manager Norman Dean said Backyard Farms has been a real boost to the area economy and the Madison tax base.

"We're very optimistic and very pleased with their continued expansion," Dean said. "We think that the town of Madison is very fortunate that, in these economic times, we are creating jobs in Madison and not closing up businesses."

Cunniff said the original "Backyard Beauty" variety has been replaced by a variety of tomato types.

Seeds are propagated in Canada and sent back to Madison as plants about a foot tall.

"You have to remember that this is the first time a crop this size, with grow lights, in this climate, had ever been tried," he said. "The success of the business was the support we got from the trade -- supermarkets giving us a lot of support in business -- the product came out much better than I ever expected."

Cunniff said the company will start hiring people for the new greenhouse within the next couple of weeks.

Doug Harlow -- 474-9534 ext. 342

dharlow@centralmaine.com

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