be9b5bbacca79a9b-futurebreadbasketMaine Governor Baldacci sees a bright future for agriculture in Maine with the addition of state-of- the- art greenhouse technology. Photo by Ramona du Houx

June/July 2006

By Ramona du Houx

The road follows the Kennebec River and was used for centuries by Native Americans as a guiding route that winds throughout Somerset County. Farmers settled near the river’s edge for the irrigation benefits, and logs were sent down the river before trucks took over their transport.

The road is well know by locals as “the River Road” and has a sense of time about it that foretells the unfolding story of Maine.

The next chapter of that story could prove to be a boon for Maine’s agriculture business, and economy.

Overlooking the Sugarloaf Mountain a dairy farm had been, a new agricultural business is dramatically taking form as over 24 acres are being transformed into state-of–the-art greenhouses.

Sixty rows of 40 four-foot-tall concrete pillars stretch across the flat land, awaiting steel supports which will be covered with more than one million square feet of glass.

The greenhouses will grow tomatoes in an environmentally friendly and atmospherically conditioned medium, pumping nutrients to the plants through plastic tubing. That enables the plants to reach up to 20 feet, to the roof, where workers will use hydraulic platforms to harvest year round. The roots will be set on heating pads, and the plants will have grow lights to aid the sun. The tomatoes will be grown without use of chemical pesticides.

It’s the first greenhouse complex of this scale in New England, as well as being the only one that can grow year round.

Last June, on the River Road site of the U.S. Functional Foods LLC (USFF) tomato greenhouse complex, Governor John E. Baldacci designated 200 acres as a Pine Tree Development Zone (PTZ), making the facility eligible for the tax incentive program.

Earlier a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) was awarded to the town of Madison for public infrastructure support of economic development in preparation for the USFF opening.200a4ffc75b73468-futurebreadbasket2

Melanie Clark, and Allison Dean, dressed as tomatoes, wowed the crowd and Governor Baldacci at a celebration ceremony for U.S. Functional Foods. Photo by Ramona du Houx

After USFF decided that Maine was the place to be, last September they began the search for a community where they could build their greenhouse complex. The Madison Business Gateway Park (MBG) had been looking for businesses but didn’t have the land needed to accommodate the greenhouse structures. With a challenge in front of them, MGB found the land on the River Road, and the wheels were set in motion for the future, for Maine’s agricultural businesses to be transformed.

“This is a wonderful community; I know—our business was just up the road,” said the governor at the PTZ ceremony, referring to a branch of Baldacci’s. “In the restaurant business it was always in the off-season when we couldn’t get the quality, ripeness, fullness, freshness from vegetables. Someone has finally figured out how to be able to grow tomatoes, on a year round basis, and to be able to feed this large Northeast market. They are using the latest technology and unique, environmentally sensitive and efficient practices, and wholesome products are being developed,” said Governor Baldaccci, who served on the Agricultural Committee when he was a member of Congress.

“You’re going to start to see this technology being used in other forms of agriculture and for growing more innovations. We’re going to learn from this practice and apply it to other types of agriculture. It’s a high-tech, sustainable business using renewable energy,” said Baldacci. “It’s a wonderful model.”

Maine’s agriculture commissioner, Seth Bradstreet, agreed that the Madison project could be just the first of many similar operations in Maine. “We are three hours from Boston, six from New York City,” said Bradstreet. “Maine is perfect for these operations, since it is much cheaper to heat a greenhouse than it is to cool it. This project is a win-win; there is no downside. The added bonus is there will be significant numbers of new employees.”

Work will hopefully be completed by September 15 for a harvest of over a million square feet of tomatoes for the holidays. This first phase of the project will create more than 60 new, full-time jobs and represent a capital investment in central Maine of more than $20 million.

The company plans to construct four greenhouses on River Road within the next three years, and it hopes to employ as many as 500 workers in eight greenhouses by 2014.

“Our product is going to taste like the tomatoes in your backyard garden,” said CEO of U.S. Functional Foods LLC Paul C. Sellew when he announced the tomatoes’ name — Backyard Beauties.

Tomatoes in supermarkets are picked green, so they never convert the starch to sugar, which only happens on the vine. When the color begins to turn red is when the sweetness happens.

“We’re producing vine-ripened tomatoes, you’ll taste the difference,” said Sellew. The average American eats twenty pounds of tomatoes in a year. “That’s 24 million pounds of tomatoes right here in Maine. We think there’s a big market, and we want to satisfy that demand.”

Sellew traveled to the Netherlands in search of the best greenhouse technology in the world; there he met Arie van der Geissen, an expert grower from Holland. Van der Geissen, who grew up learning about greenhouses from his father and is passing the knowledge on to his sons, said that greenhouses are the way to farm in Holland, which has 25,000 acres of greenhouses.

Holland is nearly half the size of Maine and supports over 16.3 million people.

“In Holland, land is so expensive we cannot afford to grow field tomatoes. We found the solution was to encourage the vines to grow four times higher. So instead of expanding out — we expanded up. It’s more efficient.”

Maine is one of only a minority of states where agriculture still means family farms. While more and more family farms have been forced out of business across America, some family farms have discovered diversity is key to a sustainable future. The greenhouse technology that U.S. Functional Foods is utilizing could help revolutionize the family farm in Maine.

“Our goal has been to bring new technologies to our traditional industries to make them more viable. This is a classic example of bringing new technologies to a traditional industry — agriculture — so that it’s no longer a seasonal business; potentially it can be a year-round business and make year-round profits,” said Commissioner Jack Cashman of the Department of Economic and Community Development. “With these kinds of agricultural businesses Maine can become the food basket for the Northeast. This is the first step; it’s a very important project.”

“This project builds on the strengths of Maine’s natural resource based industries,” said Baldacci. “We’ve been working, with USFF in the hopes of bringing such a world-class, greenhouse business to Maine.”

“Better-tasting, locally-grown food is the goal,” said Sellew. “It’s better for us and for the planet, if we eat food grown close to home.”

The governor stated that USFF represents what the program Get Real — Get Maine is all about. The agricultural, educational state program promotes wholesome Maine grown foods. Highlighting what is best in Maine agriculture by inviting people to “Get Maine” products.

“When you say “Maine,” it means quality, honesty, integrity — all those good things in the world that people have come to appreciate more than ever, given all the challenges that are in the world today,” said the governor. “Maine workers are the gold standard. That’s a major reason why USFF has come to the state.”

“Governor Baldacci and his cabinet have been unbelievably helpful. We took advantage of the various programs they had to attract investment,” said Sellew. “One of the main reasons we had for coming to Maine was the business climate here; we thought it was very positive.”

USFF has its corporate headquarters in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and chose Maine over other New England states as the place to start this business.

“We are only three hours from the Boston market — as compared to the tomatoes that are coming form England, Mexico, Canada, or the American west, this is local,” said Sellew.

USFF was attracted to Madison by the available labor force, low electric rates provided by Madison Electric Works (MEW), who produce their own electricity, and hospitality shown by townspeople.

“We are extremely impressed with the can-do attitude of the people of Madison, and we are confident that the Madison location will provide us with strategic market advantages,” said Sellew. “It’s a great place to locate a business.”

Sellew expressed his long term plans for his business:

“Our long term plans will be to build a biomass- co-generation facility and then make renewable electricity which will use the thermal, which normally goes up into the atmosphere, to heat our greenhouses. That’s our next phase.”

“The renewable energy is yet another aspect of this project that will also be a model for other companies,” said the governor.

Sellew has plans for his impressive greenhouse structures to eventually grow salad greens, peppers, and herbs in addition to the tomatoes.

The possibilities are endless — any fruit or vegetable that the people of New England would want freshly grown without chemicals, all year round. Fully vine-ripened tomatoes are just the start.

Functional Foods will offer tomatoes that are not suited for the retail market at wholesale prices locally.

“The addition of USFF and its high-tech greenhouses will, without a doubt, strengthen Maine’s reputation as a leader in the agricultural industry,” said the governor. “When Maine first got the B & A railroad to go to Aroostook County is when we opened the Boston market to the garden of Maine. Now the garden of Maine — and the tomato capital of the country — will be right here in Madison, Maine.”