Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tomatoes from Backyard Farms

[-Welcome to Backyard Farms-]

[Inside the greenhouse-entering another world-]
[-Our tour begins-]
[Backyard Farms' worker, pruning the Backyard Beauties-]

Indoor greenhouse offers economic options for Somerset County and elsewhere

Maine stands at a crossroads as a state. The state is attempting the transition into the 21st century, from a traditional, resource-based economy, to an economy that is positioned to take advantage of its unique heritage, while at the same time, making sure it can compete on a global stage.

While much of the talk coming from Augusta speaks in vague generalities about the need for more educational opportunities and technology-based training, a Madison-based company, Backyard Farms has taken a traditional industry, agriculture, and added a new twist. It’s model may offer hope for other rural regions of Maine.

Too often, economic development in Maine has lacked a centralized and consistent focus. Without being overly criticial, it bears mentioning that the state has been missing a statewide strategic emphasis in growing our economy. There have been a variety of reasons and even excuses offered for why Maine’s economic growth has been limited to narrow geographic pockets, mostly based in southern Maine. None of these reasons, in my opinion, have addressed the issues plaguing rural areas of the state. While Maine's taxes might be higher than other parts of the country, tax cuts by themselves won’t pull rural Maine out of its economic doldrums.

The model being employed by Backyard Farms is an intriguing one. Located in Madison, in Somerset County, their 24-acre greenhouse is growing a variety of tomatoes that are finding their way to markets throughout New England, including Hannafords and Whole Foods supermarkets.

A group consisting of members of the Department of Labor, based out of the Skowhegan CareerCenter, the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board and Coastal Enterprises, Inc., received a tour of the state-of-the-art greenhouse, located on the outskirts of town, off Route 43.

Walking into the greenhouse, from the snow-covered and chilly plains was like walking into a different world. The greenhouse, which is kept at a temperature of 80-85 degrees, was bright, green and buzzing with bees.

Currently, Backyard Farms employs 100 workers and they have long-term plans for increasing their operation from the current greenhouse to having nine greenhouses and employing around 500 workers, over the next five years.

Founded in 2005, Backyard Farms is able to provide New England with fresh, locally grown "Backyard Beauties" tomatoes on a year-round basis. The company’s values include the principles of taking care of its employees, giving back to local communities and treating the earth with respect. All products are shipped within just a day of harvest. Their tomatoes are left on the vine until the peak of maturity, creating a tomato that is sweet and bursting with flavor. The greenhouse is among the most modern in the world and they are employing the most advanced and environmentally friendly greenhouse technology available.

While the area has relied upon logging and papermaking for its prosperity, with Madison Paper and Sappi in Skowhegan being major employers, the diversification offered by Backyard Farms is a positive economic development for Somerset County.

Additionally, while niche agriculture isn’t as “sexy” as biotech and other commonly talked about industries proposed for Maine, the example of Backyard Farms could very well be a model that could be replicated in other rural areas of Maine.

By introducing various skills-based training programs that help retool and upgrade the local workforce, indoor agriculture might work well in other economically-challenged areas of the state. It also may be the beginning of a 21st century sector that Maine could become known for, like manufacturing and papermaking were during much of the 20th century.

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