Capitalizing on the Craving for a Better Tasting Ripe
The Tomato Magazine
Paul Sellew of Backyard Farms, Madison, Maine, is embarked in a bold
business venture that capitalizes on the consumers longing for a
Sellew, Arie Vandergiessen, Wayne Davis and Tim Cuniff are the management
team for Backyard Farms, now delivering locally grown vine-ripe tomatoes
year-round to New England grocery stores more than happy to find a supplier
closer to home. The tomatoes taste great and the distance to market is
close enough that the tomatoes can be picked ripe one day and delivered
The greenhouse venture is revolutionary for this part of the country,
where wintertime temperatures frequently plunge. Area residents are not
used to having locally grown tomatoes available, especially during the
winter. Winter or summer, there are approximately 240,000 tomato plants
growing inside this 25-acre complex. Inside the greenhouse, the temperature
is kept at 70 degrees, although the air is noticeably humid. Everything
is grown hydroponically.
Backyard Farms was offi cially organized in 2005, and the greenhouse
itself was erected in 2006. The 2007 production season is the fi rst for
Backyard Beauties, the official brand. To date, these TOVs
have been moving to a market eager to find high quality tomatoes closer
Sellew came up with the idea for a New England-based greenhouse tomato
operation during a stop at a local grocery story on a cold February day
in 2004. After pondering the huge volume of tomatoes from Canada, Holland
and Mexico on the shelves, he recalls asking himself: Wouldnt
it be great to grow fully vine-ripened greenhouse tomatoes right here
at home? Shipping distances
would be shorter, and there would be better taste because the tomatoes
could be more fully ripened before moving them to market.
From the beginning, Sellews strategy was to restrict his market
area to the New England states. This would enable him to pick and deliver
product to local customers within a 24-hour period. The Backyard
Beauties logo says it all: Grown Not Too Far from Here.
Experienced Management Team
Part of the success in carrying off the business venture is attributed
to putting together the right kind of management team. Sellew partnered
with Arie Vandergiessen and Wayne Davis. Sellews contribution to
the venture is a lifetime of greenhouse growing experience. His familys
business, Prides Corner Farms, is the largest wholesale nursery in New
England. He also founded Earthgro, Inc., a leader in the production of
natural and organic gardening products and composting systems. Sellew
holds a degree from Cornell Universitys College of Agriculture and
Vandergiessen has more than 30 years of greenhouse agriculture experience
and is considered to be one of the worlds leading greenhouse growers.
Before moving to the United States, he managed several greenhouses of
increasing complexity and size in Holland. After relocating, he managed
operations for two of the largest greenhouses in North America.
Davis brings to the business a solid financial background with experience
at Fidelity Investments and Fidelity Brokerage Company. He holds degrees
from both Williams College and Harvard Law School and, in 2004, was named
Conservationist of the Year by the town of Carlisle, Mass.
Also, very important to the management team is Tim Cuniff, a veteran in
sales with Dole Food Company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Pepsi and Oppenheimer.
He wasbrought on to head sales and marketing.
Backyard Farms greenhouse complex is state-of-the-art, Dutch designed
and the largest enterprise of its kind in New England. Everything is under
glass to allow for yearround production. While the New England area can
be cold in the winter for greenhouse production, thats not always
bad, the growers point out. Its much easier to heat than to
cool a greenhouse, Sellew exclaims. We use energy-efficient
technology throughout our growing season, Sellew explains. This
includes thermal blankets to reduce heat loss during cold weather and
heated gutters that funnel rainwater to the irrigation basin to supply
water to the tomatoes year-round. We also use a heat capture system that
stores thermal energy for night-time use. These methods are environmentally
friendly and also allow
us to maintain ideal growing conditions year round, even during New England
During the colder part of the year, the greenhouse is heated with propane
but plans are in the works to transition to native wood chips, plentiful
in the area. High-tech, 1,000-watt grow lamps
12,000 in all are also used. These lamps burn bright, up to 17
hours a day, permitting the tomatoes to receive the same amount of light
year-round, regardless of outside conditions At night, blankets are rolled
down under the glass to hold in the heat and keep the greenhouse from
being as visible at night as a lit-up ball field.
The best water for out tomatoes is pure, natural rainwater,
Sellew notes. At Backyard Farms, we capture all of the rain that
falls on our roof. Then we use the water to irrigate our tomatoes. This
method helps our plants and protects the environment by eliminating runoff
and conserving groundwater reserves.
For pollination, the greenhouse operation uses bumblebees. Every one of
the companys tomatoes starts with a bee. Native bumblebees receive
their food from Backyard Beauties pollen and, in turn,
fertilize the plants fl owers. This results in higher yields and
Use Naturally Occurring Biologicals
Although Backyard Beauties are not certified as organic, environmentally
friendly procedures and technologies are used. The company employs integrated
pest management systems which rely on naturally occurring biological controls
and beneficial insects as opposed to chemical pesticides which are not
used. The tomatoes remain on the vine until fully ripened, Sellew explains.
After harvest, they travel at a stable 55ºF, considered the ideal
temperature for maximum freshness and flavor.
And because were a local grower, we have complete control
over the transit temperature, the CEO and co-founder stresses. Unlike
tomatoes that are shipped a long way, our tomatoes are never refrigerated
or left in the sun. From picking to delivery, our goal is to complete
everything within 24 hours.
Looking ahead, the growers hope to expand their produce line to include
grape, cherry, cocktail, beefsteak and heirloom tomato varieties. Eventually,
cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and culinary herbs may also be added to
the portfolio. For more information on Backyard Farms and Backyard Beauties,
visit www.backyardbeauties.com or call (781) 674-2537.
© 2007 Columbia
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