Hydroponic Farm Grows Summer Tomatoes and a Sustainable Work Force Through Long Maine Winters
March 11, 2014 | Marianne Peters
One thing most people can agree on: pale supermarket tomatoes do not taste like the tomatoes grown in the backyard in summer. That’s why Backyard Farms strives to produce fruit so delicious that it tastes like it was just plucked from the backyard garden—even during a long Maine winter.
According to Tim Cunnis, Executive Director of Sales and Marketing at Backyard Farms, the company formed in 2006 to provide a more local alternative to mediocre tomatoes trucked in from thousands of miles away.
Located in Madison, Maine, Backyard Farms grows tomatoes in a 42-acre greenhouse using hydroponic technology, where tomatoes ripen on the vine until picked for shipping. The company’s tomatoes are now distributed and sold all over New England in retail and wholesale businesses. Backyard Farms employs sustainable techniques to grow its plants, but its commitment to sustainability also includes expanding a local job market for skilled agriculture workers.
Superior taste is not the only advantage to local, says Cunnis.
“Local is not a fad,” he says. “It’s here to stay. ‘Local’ means ‘information.’ People know that if the food is local, they will be able to put a face with the product. They are going to speak to someone who has a commitment to the farm, to the product. It means quality, freshness, trust, and safety.”
Backyard Farms employs approximately 200 people in their hydroponic operation, which supplies four types of tomatoes to retail and wholesale food service customers in the Northeast. Their year-round greenhouse operation produces two crops a year, grown in rockwool, a soilless medium, and is pollinated by bumblebees. The greenhouse uses integrated pest management and beneficial insects to keep the plants healthy. Getting enough sunlight proves to be a challenge, however, especially during Maine’s dark winter months. According to Tim Cunnis, the company has invested the most in its grow lights.
“It’s a controlled atmosphere,” he says, “but we still rely on the sun quite a bit. In the winter, we have some days with low sunlight. The lights in the greenhouse are just supplemental—in fact, one hour of sunlight is equal to about three hours from the grow lights.”
The location does have one plus: precipitation. Backyard Farms takes advantage of the over 40 inches of snow the region receives every winter by capturing melting snow off the roof and directing it to a one million gallon irrigation pond, where it is filtered and used to irrigate the growing crops. Each plant has its own dripper to allow the water to flow right to the roots, so none is wasted. Any water not used by the plants is filtered back into the irrigation pond with a 98 percent efficiency rate.
Tim Cunnis emphasizes that wise use of technology and resources is only part of the picture.
“We have a nice greenhouse,” says Cunnis, “but beyond that, it’s what we do with the system; it’s crop care, people management, water, lights, heating strategies.”
Sustainability, he believes, is not just for plants, but also for people. To train their own workers and create more employment opportunities in the region, the company has spearheaded a unique team of “personal gardeners” to care for their crops.
“We have a population here in Maine with strong agricultural roots,” says Cunnis. “Our view is that we’re going to teach people, give them a skill set, and create a local work force.”
The company has pioneered a “personal gardener” system. In the greenhouse, personal gardeners take responsibility for sections of approximately 7000 plants. Within the sections, workers plant, sucker, clip, de-leaf, and prune the plants throughout the entire growing season. One “head grower” oversees the personal gardeners, but otherwise they are each responsible for “their” plants.
“With personal gardeners, we have a better crop quality,” says Cunnis. “People are held accountable for the quality of their fruit, and there’s incentive—if their crop does well, they get a bigger garden. We see a lot of pride. We also get a lot more feedback and more communication about the plants. It’s a good, solid job. People love what they do.”
Backyard Farms continues to expand its hydroponic crop selection and to seek a “better tomato,” according to Cunnis, who says he would like to see the entire industry expand as well.
“The produce industry is incredibly rewarding,” he says. “We want people to get involved. It’s a good solid career. I tell people, ‘don’t be afraid to go look for a good-sized farm. Grow something!’”