Governor Baldacci prepares to taste a Backyard Beauty tomato at their greenhouse in Madison, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

March/April 2008

Article by Ramona du Houx

It’s true, people taste the difference straight away. A fresh sun-ripened tomato and one shipped thousands of miles, picked green, are worlds apart in taste.

“It’s really sweet,” said Governor John E. Baldacci, expressing that savory difference when he picked the first red, juicy tomato off the vine last January, celebrating Backyard Farms’ inaugural crop.

In a year since operations started, the company that grows fresh tomatoes year round in a state-of-the-art greenhouse has cultivated more than 500,000 plants, producing 17 million pounds of tomatoes for sale across New England. Thirty-five percent of that fruit is sold in Maine, with Hannaford Bros. supermarkets as one of their biggest customers.


Van der Giessen with Gov. Baldacci picking fresh tomatoes. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Backyard Farms has created more than 90 year-round jobs, with a payroll of more than $3 million, while spending more than $10 million on Maine-based contractors and suppliers.

The company announced last November that it will build a second, huge greenhouse in the spring of 2008.

“The new greenhouse will allow us to expand from 90 to 150 workers. There is an increasing demand for our Backyard Beauties; the new greenhouse will help us meet the market’s needs,” said Arie van der Giessen, cofounder, chief grower, and chief operations officer.

Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection approved permits for the expansion project. Van der Giessen announced that the company will begin immediately to level off the hilly ground, just north of the existing 23-acre greenhouse for the new 17-acre facility.

“It’s the next step on the road to turn Maine into the produce capital of New England,” said company cofounder Paul Sellew. “We are the local greenhouse to New England.”

“The plan is to plant the fall of 2008,” said Van der Giessen. “We’re very happy that people love our tomatoes. We are only going to work harder to grow even better tomatoes. We’re very focused on quality, quality, quality.”

For Backyard Farms to move forward with their expansion plans, Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection needed a long-range outline from Backyard Farms for its land along the River Road in Madison. The plan includes a biomass boiler that would burn wood chips to heat the greenhouses. The biothermal energy plant will make the greenhouse energy efficient and a model for the industry.

“Tomatoes are a start, but we have no intention of stopping there,” said Sellew.

The company’s long-term expansion plans also include other additional greenhouses to grow additional vegetables and greens, including eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs, in order to bring summer freshness to the New England market.

All the greenhouses will use hydroponics to grow without soil and biological insect controls, so the plants do not require chemical pesticides.

Sellew is dedicated to the environment. “It’s important for us to be an environmentally friendly company. By growing locally in this state-of–the-art greenhouse, we can supply New England without producing a large carbon footprint,” he said. Most other producers have to truck or fly their goods over long distances.

Sellew hopes to have a visitor center that will inform people about how the greenhouse and the biomass boiler work and the benefits to buying locally grown produce.

In the coming five years the workforce could grow to as much as 300 strong.

One of the major reasons Backyard Farms chose Maine’s backyard is the Pine Tree Zone tax incentive package started by Gov. John Baldacci.

The construction of the first greenhouse of Backyard Farms in Madison.

The company has plans for many more, the next one  wil begint construction in the spring of 2008.