Maine Leads the Renaissance in Agriculture — Becoming the Breadbasket of New England

by Ramona du Houx

Nestled amongst the tomato vines towering fifteen feet tall at Backyard Farms, one would never know it was Maine in the middle of winter. As the sun streamed through the windows, it felt and looked more like a summer’s day. It was 16 degrees outside; 75 degrees inside the high-tech greenhouse in Madison.

The smell of the tomatoes wafted in the air and inspired Governor Baldacci to taste one of the first harvested tomatoes. “These are beautiful,” said the governor, “and they taste sweet!”

According to Paul Sellew, president & CEO of Backyard Farms, that taste of summer in the middle of winter is something consumers long for, and it is something he and his team have been working straight out on since last summer to achieve.

Though Sellew is excited that the first harvest has been sent to market, he believes that he’s only just started his venture. “We want to make Madison, Maine, the produce capital of New England,” said Sellew.

Backyard Farms intends to add three or four more greenhouses, growing hydroponic cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, and herbs, which would increase the workforce from 65 to 250.

The tomatoes are continually ripening on a rotational basis. The greenhouse is projected to yield one million tomatoes a week — 7.7 tons a year.

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Arie Vandergiessen and other members of Backyard Farms talk with Governor Baldacci as he toured the facility

Sellew partnered with Arie Vandergiessen, a leading greenhouse grower, and Wayne Davis, a former executive with Fidelity Investments, to develop the project. Sellew said they came to Maine because of the workforce, the Pine Tree Zone tax incentive program, and Madison Electric Works’ low prices. A $400,000 Community Development Block Grant was awarded to the town of Madison for public infrastructure support in preparation for Backyard Farms’s opening.

“We’re proud to bring a product to market which really is the best tasting tomato — anywhere in the world,” said Hannaford CEO Ron Hodge.

The greenhouse, which covers an area over the size of 20 football fields, currently uses state-of-the-art technology to emulate the sun and environmentally friendly processes that use biological controls. There are no chemical pesticides and there are bees buzzing around the facility, pollinating. “They’re Maine bees, they’re friendly,” said Madison Town Manager Norman Dean.

“We’re committed to sustainable business practices,” said Sellew. Eventually, the entire site will use biotech to run the facility, with a biomass broiler planned, and the continual use of solar power. “This represents the beginning of a renaissance in New England agriculture. Right here in Madison.”

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Governor Baldacci pickes the first harvested tomatoe cluster

The governor said it was impossible to get these kinds of tomatoes in the winter when he managed his family-owned restaurant, Baldacci’s.

“These are delicious. It’s a high-quality Maine product. The potential here is tremendous. Not only can this project help other areas of agriculture, it can help in transportation,” said the governor.

“With transportation, it could be like a train that can add on more box cars, so more goods can get to market.”

The governor intends to hold meetings to discuss the potential areas of growth.

For more history click on Backyard Beauties