October 18, 2013

Maine’s Backyard Farms calling back at least 60 workers

The farm, which produces more than 27 million pounds of tomatoes a year, shut down in July because of a whitefly infestation.

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

MADISON — Commercial tomato producer Backyard Farms, which ceased growing operations in July because of a whitefly infestation, plans to have two full greenhouses of tomato plants planted by the end of next week and is bringing back scores of furloughed workers.

click image to enlarge

David Leaming/2009 Morning Sentinel File Photo Tomato plants ripen inside a greenhouse at Backyard Fams in Madison, Maine.

Sixty to 70 workers who were sent home because of the infestation will return to work next week, Backyard Farms spokesman Mike Aalto said Friday. He said the company, which previously had produced more than 27 million pounds of tomatoes a year for sale around the country, plans to have tomatoes back in stores by January.

The company sells to retailers including Hannaford Bros., Walmart and Whole Foods.

“It’s encouraging. We have employees returning to work and we are looking forward to the beginning of next year, when we plan to re-enter the market,” Aalto said. “Now that we have our crops planted, our goal is to have a harvest at the beginning of the year and be back in stores.”

Half of the plants already have been planted and the remainder will be planted next week, Aalto said. Backyard Farms, one of the largest employers in Madison, has two commercial greenhouses that together total 42 acres of plants.

Twice during the summer, the company destroyed nearly half a million plants. The first instance occurred because of the infestation of whiteflies, insects known for causing crop problems by feeding off plant tissue and inducing toxic saliva in the process. After those 420,000 plants were destroyed in July, the company destroyed a second crop of seedlings in early August after determining that they did not meet its quality standards.

Backyard Farms has not said how many of its roughly 200 employees were furloughed – it’s more than the 60 to 70 who are returning next week – but Aalto said that as work at the greenhouse increases, more workers will return.

“We’re happy to be going back,” Ben Hawes, a crop care specialist at Backyard Farms, said by phone Friday. He said the company’s media policy prevented him from commenting further.

According to the Madison officials, Backyard Farms is the town’s second-largest employer and an important part of the local economy.

During the furloughs, some employees spent time volunteering at local organizations such as the L.C. Bates Museum in Fairfield and Lake George Regional Park on the Skowhegan and Canaan town line.

The volunteer work was part of a three-week effort by the company, which made the opportunities available to workers while they remained on company pay.

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at rohm@centralmaine.com

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