Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Renaissance of agriculture' begins

Comment: On first blush, this appears to be a good step toward sustainability. I just hope they have done all they can to reduce their energy demand. Perhaps they can install a large PV array down the road and/or look into a Geo Thermal system.

Maine Today
Jerry Harkavy
January 30, 2007


MADISON - The temperature Monday hovered around 10 degrees, and snow covered the ground. But inside one of the nation's largest greenhouses, workers wore T-shirts as Gov. John Baldacci sampled the first vine-ripened tomatoes grown at Backyard Farms.

"These are beautiful," said Baldacci of the bright-red tomatoes grown in 70- to 75-degree warmth. Taking a bite, the former restaurateur pronounced the fruit "sweet and delicious."

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 1,000 miles away.

The glass-covered greenhouse on a former dairy farm covers 25 acres and 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.

Backyard Farms, based in Lexington, Mass., envisions three or four additional greenhouses that would turn out other hydroponic produce, including cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and 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, dubbed "Backyard Beauties." 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 tomatoes will be priced competitively, said Caren Epstein, a spokeswoman for the chain.

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 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.

Madison was chosen because its electric rates are among the lowest in the region. Madison Electric Works, municipally owned, prices its power below that of other utilities.

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 uses 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.

"This represents a renaissance of New England agriculture," Sellew said.

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