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Capitalizing on the Craving for a Better Tasting Ripe Tomato

The Tomato Magazine
August 2007

Paul Sellew of Backyard Farms, Madison, Maine, is embarked in a bold business venture that capitalizes on the consumer’s longing for a better-tasting tomato.

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 next.

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 to home.

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: “Wouldn’t 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, Sellew’s 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. Sellew’s contribution to the venture is a lifetime of greenhouse growing experience. His family’s 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 University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Vandergiessen has more than 30 years of greenhouse agriculture experience and is considered to be one of the world’s 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, that’s not always bad, the growers point out. “It’s 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 winters.”

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 company’s 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 delicious fruit.

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 we’re 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 Publishing

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