The loss of Backyard Farms’ greenhouse tomato crop and a wetter-than-normal June that doused the crops of more traditional farmers have combined to create a later and leaner season for locally grown tomatoes in Maine.
“It’s been one of the slowest and most ridiculous seasons. Demand is very high because of that,” said Amy LeBlanc, who owns Whitehill Farms in East Wilton. “We’re going to start pruning to tell the plants to hurry up. … We’re about 10 days later, maybe two weeks later than normal.”
The growing season for tomatoes runs from May to October in southern and midcoast Maine, and can be shorter in northern parts of the state. The beginning of August is the typical start of the tomato harvest, but this season has been a few weeks behind.
Some farmers say they have done well with tomatoes grown in greenhouses or hoop houses, but struggled with tomatoes grown outdoors.
“Tomatoes inside hoop houses — or grown inside — did well but we’re just about out of those,” said Bob Spear, who owns Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro. “We’re still waiting for outside tomatoes to come up.”
Tomatoes are the fourth-most popular fresh-market vegetable in the country, trailing potatoes, lettuce and onions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though they’re botanically fruit, the USDA classifies tomatoes as vegetables.
Maine farmers say a soggy June – when rainfall in Portland was 3.5 inches above the average of 3.79 inches – delayed production and contributed to disease.
Excess water can wash away essential nutrients and oxygen in the soil that tomato plants need to thrive, and can cause stem bases to rot and flowering buds to attract gray mold and other diseases, farmers say.
“We’ve been getting more calls from customers looking for tomatoes,” said Jodie Jordan of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth. “People just can’t find locally grown product like they’re used to.
“There’s more demand right now, but we’re expecting tomatoes this week, so demand will drop off as supply picks up,” Jordan said.
Things are looking up as well at Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, which has begun harvesting about 1,600 pounds of tomatoes a week, said Mary Ellen Chadd.
Prices for locally grown tomatoes vary widely, depending on the variety. At the farmer’s market in Portland on Wednesday, prices ranged from $1 per pound for beefsteak tomatoes to $5 a pound for unique heirloom varieties. The Hannaford supermarket in Portland advertised locally grown tomatoes for $2.99 per pound.
Problems with this year’s crop at Backyard Farms in Madison have contributed to a shortage of Maine-grown tomatoes in stores.
The commercial grower has had to destroy two crops of tomato plants this summer.
The company, which typically produces more than 27 million pounds of tomatoes each year in greenhouses that cover 42 acres, had to destroy one crop because of a whitefly infestation. The second crop was destroyed when Backyard Farms decided the replacement seedling plants were inferior.
As a result, Backyard Farms, which sells to retailers in the Northeast ranging from Hannaford to Whole Foods to Walmart, said its tomatoes won’t be available until early 2014.
Spear, who sells his produce to Hannaford and Shaw’s, said, “It’s a very clear fact that Backyard Farms isn’t producing tomatoes, which means there’s not as many local tomatoes in stores right now. Therefore demand is strong for any local production.”
“We are still hoping to be coming up with tomatoes in the next week or two. We’re hoping Mother Nature will cooperate and we’ll get tomatoes soon,” he said. “Time will tell.”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: