January 8

Madison grower Backyard Farms resumes tomato production after whitefly infestation

The commercial tomato grower is increasing pest management after a recent shutdown that furloughed 200 workers.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

MADISON — Months after a whitefly infestation forced tomato grower Backyard Farms to cease operations and furlough employees, the landmark company is reintroducing the ripe red fruit to stores around the northeast and eyeing new methods of warding off destructive pests.

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BACK IN BUSINESS: Gov. Paul LePage, second from left, toured Backyard Farms greenhouse in Madison along with company officials, vendors and municipal leaders on Wednesday. From left are company Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Cunnliff, LePage, company President and CEO Paul Mucci and head of Growing Operations Arie vander Giessen.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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RIPE AND READY TO GO: Backyard Farms employee Anne Delano packs tomatos for shipping in Madison on Wednesday.

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Backyard Farms

Backyard Farms

131 River Road, Madison

Number of employees: About 200

Tomatoes produced: About 27 million pounds per year

Number of plants: 500,000

Greenhouses: Two. 24 acres and 18 acres. The greenhouses are hydroponic, which means that nutrients are distributed to plants through a water-based system in which they grow.

Number of tomatoes produced since shutdown: Approximately 660,000 pounds.

Heat management: The greenhouses are kept between 69 to 72 degrees during the day and about 10 degrees cooler at night. When needed, heat from grow lights is supplemented with a series of hot water pipes heated with naturalgas boilers. Using the greenhouse allows plants to be grown year round and also maximizes the number of plants that can be grown.

Rain and snow reclamation: As much rain and snow as possible is captured from the roof of the greenhouse and reused using a funneling system and irrigation pond. Water from the pond is filtered before coming to the greenhouse, where it is mixed with fertilizer and distributed to the plants.

Food miles: Food miles refer to how far a product has traveled from where it was grown to where it is consumed. Backyard Farms’ food miles policy dictates that tomatoes are not shipped anywhere that they cannot arrive to within 48 hours of harvest.

Number of bumblebees: 40,000 at any given time

The farm, which produces about 27 million pounds of tomatoes a year, is back in operation and its 200 employees placed on furlough during the recent shutdown have returned to work, according to officials at a celebration of the new crop on Wednesday.

“We’re here today to celebrate the re-opening of our facilities. It hasn’t been an easy time for us these past few months and we know it hasn’t been easy for our customers either,” said Paul Mucci, president and chief operating officer of Backyard Farms. “I want to thank our employees for their patience and professionalism during the last six months.”

The greenhouse, one of the area’s largest employers, temporarily closed in July because of a whitefly infestation while the 42-acre farm was cleaned out. Whiteflies are small insects that feed on leaves, and while they pose no risk to humans they suck away plant juices, causing leaves to yellow or die.

The company is not disclosing how much revenue was lost during the shutdown, although almost a half-million plants were destroyed, said company spokesman Mike Aalto.

On Wednesday, plump red tomatoes hung from vines while employees got back to work. The tomatoes have been back in stores including Hannaford, Whole Foods, Walmart and Shaw’s since mid-December, said Aalto.

During the shutdown, all 200 of the company’s employees were furloughed and given the option to complete up to three weeks of community service while remaining on company payroll.

“This is a very important occasion not just for Madison, but for the state,” said Gov. Paul LePage, who attended Wednesday’s celebration and toured the greenhouse. “Backyard Farms is a major employer, as well as an innovative and interesting business that inspires people who come to Maine.”

Employees said they were happy to be back at work, although the furlough provided unique opportunities.

“I think it’s difficult for anyone at any company to be in that situation,” said Liza Graham, 30, of Solon, a picking and packing manager who returned to work the first week in December.

“Production so far has been excellent. The quality has been outstanding,” said Ken Downey, of Cornville, who is also a picking and packing manager. He has worked at Backyard Farms for about four years and said he appreciated that the company and the state Department of Labor worked together to make sure jobs would back.

“I had a list of stuff I was going to do at home, but once I finished it I was chomping at the bit waiting to get back to work,” said Downey.

In the future, the company will be doing a number of things to better manage pests, including better crop management and prevention tactics such as increased use of beneficial insects that eat destructive ones in greenhouses, which operate as mini-ecosystem in many ways.

One expert in the field said biological controls such as other predatory insects can be especially effective against whiteflies.

“In a greenhouse, you can get a severe population rapidly, primarily because of the environment. You have a mini-Florida,” said Jim Walgenbach, an extension entomologist at North Carolina State University.

Walgenbach, who specializes in tomato plants, said biological controls are usually optimal in any kind of agriculture setting, from backyard gardeners to large-scale agriculture businesses.

One reason farmers often use biological controls to kill whiteflies is that their short lifespan allows them to evolve quickly enough to become increasingly insecticide resistant, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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WE’RE BACK: Backyard Farms employee Erika Verrier, center, speaks with officials including Brian Mulligan of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, second from right, during a tour at the Madison facility on Wednesday. The company is back in operation after a six-month shutdown because of a white fly infestation.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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GROWING: Backyard Farms employee Dan Keister works in one of the greenhouses at the Madison greenhouse on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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TOUR: State and local officials tour the reopened Backyard Farms in Madison on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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TONS OF TOMATOES: Tomatoes ripen inside one of the immense greenhouses at Backyard Farms in Madison.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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TALL ORDER: Backyard Farms worker Chris Richards works from a lift to reach tomato plants inside one of the greenhouse at the Madison facility on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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PACKED: Backyard Farms workers in Madison pack tomatoes for shipping on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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