August 31, 2013

Maine's Backyard Farms to rehire employees

Some workers gave time to community service while the tomato grower's greenhouse was replanted.

By RACHEL OHM Morning Sentinel

MADISON – Backyard Farms says it plans to rehire all of its employees and will return some of them to work by October after furloughs that are scheduled to begin after Labor Day, a spokesman said Friday.

click image to enlarge

Matt Cowan, left ladder, and Mat Gross, right ladder, paint the Margaret Chase Smith Hall at Lake George Regional Park on the Canaan and Skowhegan town line Friday as Backyard Farms co-worker Matt Abbott, foreground, watches. The crew from BackyardFarms has been volunteering time at Lake George Regional Park helping with maintenance and general up-keep of the facility.

Michael G. Seamans / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Mat Gross, of North New Portland, an employee with Backyard Farms, climbs the ladder to apply a fresh coat of paint on the Margaret Chase Smith Hall at Lake George Regional Park on the Canaan and Skowhegan town line Friday.

Michael G. Seamans / Staff Photographer

Problems with tomato crops at the commercial greenhouse, including a white fly infestation that required the company to destroy nearly half-a-million plants, has disrupted operations and shut down production. The company plans to have tomatoes ready for distribution in January, said spokesman Perry Chlan.

Backyard Farms, which employs about 200 people, won't say how many workers will be furloughed, but in the weeks leading up to the changes they have offered an unusual alternative to the regular greenhouse work as operations are slowing, Chlan said.

On Friday, employees from the greenhouse concluded three weeks of community service projects at Lake George Regional Park, where about a dozen of them painted cabins and cleared and marked trails.

They spent six days at the L.C. Bates Museum in Fairfield, painting and puttying windows and assembling thousands of kits for students to learn about the natural sciences in the museum's school visit program.

"The work they have done has been incredible. We've never had this much help in the museum," said museum director Deborah Staber. "They cleaned the classrooms in the museum, went through and cleaned all the glass and gave the place the best vacuum it's ever had."

She said that some of the volunteers also said they plan to come back next week to volunteer while on furlough.

"I think they had fun and really enjoyed it. They were just wonderful, hardworking people," Staber said.

Workers said company policy wouldn't let them discuss the furloughs or their volunteer work.

Chlan said the employees also spent time at the Madison Recreation Center, where they painted, cleared brush and maintained the athletic fields, all while on Backyard Farms' payroll.

He said about 50 employees participated in the community service projects, spending a total of about 1,200 hours on the projects, which were intended for the month of August as a way to offset the lack of work at the greenhouse.

"We were managing the replanting operations at the greenhouse and not all employees were needed to do that work, so we made these projects available and they very willingly signed up to do them," he said.

According to the town office, Backyard Farms is the second-largest employer in the town and an important part of the local economy.

Town Manager Dana Berry said earlier this month that he wasn't sure what effect the furloughs might have on the town.

"It matters a great deal. Those wages come back to our local economy," he said.


Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:


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