Article and Photos by Ramona du Houx

October 19, 2009

Governor John Baldacci and Backyard Farms CEO Roy Lubetkin pick vine ripened hydroponic tomatoes. “You’re making Maine a leader in agriculture with this first-of-a-kind greenhouse,” said the governor. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Mother Nature can do as she pleases; the weather won’t stop tomatoes growing and ripening at Backyard Farms in Madison. The state-of-the-art greenhouses modulate the temperature consistently to be between 72 and 76 degrees. The tomatoes ripen in the sun, but if that’s lacking UV lights are used.

“Computers inside the facility make calculations regarding outdoor temperature and wind speed, desired indoor temperature, humidity, and radiation from the sun to create the ultimate environment for the crop,” said Tim DeKok, a head grower, originally from Holland.

In September the company celebrated the opening of its second greenhouse, which has 75 new employees, bringing the workforce up to 200.

The greenhouses produce fresh tomatoes “off the vine and to your door” all year round. This continuous production capability allows Backyard Farms to be 20 times more productive than traditional farming methods.

With the new greenhouse, the company will almost double production from about 75,000 pounds of tomatoes harvested per day to about 150,000 pounds. They are also harvesting a new product line of cocktail tomatoes, which are smaller and firmer.

“These are quality tomatoes competing and beating the imports that aren’t nearly as good. You’re making Maine a leader in agriculture, with this first-of-a-kind greenhouse,” said Governor John Baldacci during his remarks at the greenhouse opening.

The governor went on to make references about the spirit of Maine people and how their work ethic and determination is making Maine a leader. “The can-do attitude you have is setting an example for the nation. We can do anything we want to do in this state. You’re proving it,” he said.

6fb98c642be5e3b2-TOMATOESIn 2005 when the company first broke ground, most people could not imagine 42 acres of greenhouses. Since the harvesting began, Backyard Farms has grown more than 40 million pounds of tomatoes for sale exclusively in New England.

“We’re proud to tell anyone that Maine is a great place to locate a business. We are grateful to the state of Maine and the local Madison community for embracing our business and enabling us to operate successfully,” said Backyard Farms CEO and President Roy Lubetkin. “Vine-ripened tomatoes now join blueberries, potatoes, dairy products and lobster as a signature cash crop for the state of Maine.”

The tomatoes are picked when they are ripe, red, and juicy, which makes them sweeter. The longer a tomato stays on the vine to ripen in the sun, the more sugars are produced.

“So, tomatoes grown in California that are picked when they are orange simply don’t have the same taste,” said Lubetkin.

The governor agreed. Speaking from his own experience, growing up working at his family’s restaurant, Momma Baldacci’s, he said, “To have quality tomatoes during the off season for the restaurant business is huge. We used to get tomatoes you could bounce off the walls. I know tomatoes. I’ve seen tomatoes. These are the best tomatoes.”

The hydroponically grown tomato plants are raised in rock-wool fiber pots and fed water collected and recycled from rain and melted snow. Ripe tomatoes are harvested twice a week onto trolleys that roll along heated rail pipes.

The plants seem to grow into the sky, climbing up to 25 feet, stopped only by the glass roof. There are 8,000 bumblebees from forty hives that dance past employees in search of plants to pollinate, as workers inspect their crops, choosing which tomatoes to harvest with the utmost care.

Crops are rotated in two six-month cycles. New plants will be growing for three months before they replace the old ones. As soon as the new crop is ready to be harvested the crops are switched. So, there is never a time when Backyard Farms is not producing a fresh tomato. According to DeKok, greenhouses in Arizona or Holland have yet to match this capability. The rotation process all depends on the quality trained workforce. The crop rotation timing is a skill that workers learn as they train.

Each worker tends a row of tomatoes, referred to as their “personal garden,” that stretches for 1,000 feet. Their name appears over the aisle, along the row.

Lubetkin said “We grow locally and hire locally, unlike other agricultural businesses. We try and build a culture here where workers care about their personal garden. If you put care into growing a tomato, the taste is different.”

Workers also receive 401(k)’s, health care, and make above average wages. For an agricultural worker, that’s a good package.

“Our workers take a lot of pride in producing quality tomatoes,” said DeKok, whose expertise stems partly from four generations of greenhouse farmers. DeKok helped run his father’s greenhouse in Arizona before taking a job with Backyard Farms in 2006.

“My father used to always say, ‘the plant is honest.’ If you are rough with it, that shows, and it wilts. Initially, some new workers are rough, but with training they learn how to put tender loving care into their gardens.”

Investor Dan Boxer brought the idea of Backyard Farms to the governor back in 2005. Baldacci took action and assembled a team to make sure the project happened in Maine.

Madison Electric, local Tax Increment Financing, and Baldacci’s Pine Tree Zones for business development contributed to the company’s growth and success. “The help from the governor’s cabinet and local officials has helped us all along our way,” said Lubetkin.

Baldacci said, “When we first started talking about the greenhouses, they had long-term plans. Backyard Farms has a vision to make Maine the tomato capital of New England, and they are growing this concept. Making Maine an agricultural leader.”

Other crops, from peaches to herbs, may be grown as well in future, depending on the New England market.

Maine is ideally suited for greenhouses, because it is easier to heat up a greenhouse in the winter than it is to cool it down in the summer.

In 2005, when the company first broke ground, most people could not imagine 42 acres of greenhouses, viewed here from the air.