25-Acre Greenhouse Thriving in Maine

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 1, 2007; 7:13 AM

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

"These are beautiful," said Baldacci, who clipped a cluster of bright-red tomatoes from an 8-foot-tall plant.

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 7,700 tons a year. And that could be 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.

During the governor's visit 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.

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