In depths of winter, tomatoes


MADISON (AP) – Outdoors, the temperature hovered around 10 degrees and snow covered the ground. Inside, workers wore T-shirts as Gov. John Baldacci on Monday sampled the first vine-ripened tomatoes from a 25-acre greenhouse, one of the nation’s largest.

“These are beautiful,” said Baldacci, who used scissors to clip a cluster of bright-red tomatoes from an 8-foot-tall plant grown in 70- to 75-degree warmth.

Taking a bite, the former restaurateur pronounced the fruit “sweet and delicious.”

“To get tomatoes at this time of the year – this is great,” said Baldacci, whose family runs the Mama Baldacci’s restaurant in Bangor.

Drawn to this paper mill town by the promise of cheap electricity and available land, Backyard Farms is betting that its $25 million venture will find a receptive market among shoppers craving summer quality tomatoes in a region that has long relied on produce shipped from growers more than 1,000 miles away.

The company is out to prove that a state notorious for its cold weather and short growing season can expand agricultural production by adopting technology that could signal a new direction for farming in Maine, while creating new jobs at the same time.

In Madison, the glass-covered greenhouse on a former dairy farm stretches nearly as far as the eye can see. At more than 1 million square feet, it’s roughly the size of six Wal-Mart Supercenters or more than 20 football fields.

With a capacity of 240,000 plants growing up to 10-feet tall, the greenhouse is projected to yield 1 million tomatoes a week. That adds up to 7.7 tons a year.

If all goes according to plan, this is only the beginning. Backyard Farms, based in Lexington, Mass., envisions three or four additional greenhouses that would also turn out other hydroponic produce, including cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and culinary herbs. If this comes to pass, the current work force of 65 could expand to as many as 250 workers.

“We want to make Madison, Maine, the produce capital of New England,” said Paul Sellew, president and CEO of Backyard Farms.

On Monday, however, the focus was strictly on tomatoes, the ones dubbed “Backyard Beauties,” that the company plans to market throughout the Northeast.

“Now, New England consumers will finally be able to enjoy fresh, locally-grown and healthful tomatoes on a year-round basis,” Sellew said.

The first shipment was dispatched Monday to Hannaford supermarkets, which has been looking forward to the Backyard Beauties to supplement winter tomatoes it gets from Holland, Israel, Mexico and Canada. The Maine-grown tomatoes will be priced competitively and will not command a premium, said Caren Epstein, a spokeswoman for the chain.

“There’s year-round demand for anything that’s locally grown,” Epstein said. “Common sense tells you that if it’s picked today and in the store tomorrow, it’s going to be a fresher, juicier, better tasting tomato.”

Greenhouse tomatoes have seized a growing share of the national retail market for fresh tomatoes, up from negligible amounts in the early 1990s to around 37 percent, according to a 2005 study by Roberta Cook of the University of California, Davis, and Linda Calvin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sellew, whose family runs a large wholesale nursery in Connecticut, teamed up with Dutch-born Arie Vandergiessen, a leading greenhouse grower, and Wayne Davis, a former executive with Fidelity Investments, to develop the project.

While it may seem odd to build a greenhouse in a place that gets a fair share of snow and subzero temperatures, Sellew said northern regions such as Quebec and Scandinavia are where many greenhouses are found.

“It’s much easier to heat a greenhouse than it is to cool a greenhouse,” Sellew said.

In the United States, the largest greenhouses are found in West Texas and Arizona because their low-humidity environment allows for evaporative cooling, a low-cost substitute for air conditioning, he said.

Madison landed on Backyard Farms’ radar screen because its electric rates are among the lowest in the region. Madison Electric Works has been able to price its power below that of other utilities because it’s municipally owned and has negotiated a favorable supply contract with its energy provider.

The greenhouse is a major user of electricity to power its 11,000 specialized 1,000-watt lights. They are controlled by computer to emit enough light to mimic what the sun would provide under ideal conditions for photosynthesis.

The greenhouse is heated with propane, but Sellew’s plan is to ultimately turn to wood chips. “We want to go to renewable energy all the way around,” he said.

The company also emphasizes its state-of-the-art technology and environmentally friendly processes that use biological controls and beneficial insects in place of chemical pesticides.

Inside the greenhouse there are plenty of bees buzzing around to pollinate the tomatoes. The greenhouse uses rainwater, not groundwater, to grow the produce.

Madison’s other attraction was the availability of 330 acres of flat, open terrain, some of it owned by retired dairy farmer Erik Walter, who appears dressed in overalls and a cap in promotional materials and on the side of the company’s truck.

Both Walter and Sellew are happy that the greenhouse assures that the land won’t be lost to farming. Sellew believes it’s a signal of things to come.

“This represents a renaissance of New England agriculture,” he said.

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AP-ES-01-29-07 1644EST