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Mid-Maine Business is Ripe at Backyard Farms

Jim Darroch found a plum job promoting Maine-grown tomatoes.

My grandfather’s funeral featured a score of stories from the family and friends whose lives he had touched. But the one I remember best was the five-line haiku that my brother, Sandy, wrote to sum up the man’s talent for sharing life’s richest pleasures with those he loved. The poem’s subject was Sandy’s childhood memory of Pappy picking a tomato and handing it to him to eat—fresh from the vine.

That cherished family snapshot was the last thing I expected to talk about when I began my interview with a Maine marketing director about the company he serves. But that exact same scene—of a man sharing a vine-plucked tomato with his grandchild—was the one Jim Darroch cites as the inspiration for Backyard Farms. “People have an emotional connection to a good tomato that runs deep,” Darroch explains. “That passion is the reason for everything we do.”

Building a company around that single desire to grow the ideal tomato is a commendable achievement. But a look at the numbers that quantify the scale of the operation that supports it—located in a mid-Maine town of less than 3000 residents— makes it nothing short of  remarkable.

The company’s Madison farm is comprised of two hydroponic greenhouses covering 42 acres. Inside, there are over half a million tomato plants pollinated by 30,000 bumble bees that produce 20-30 million pounds of tomatoes a year. Perhaps most remarkable is that a staff of only 200 are the force responsible for the daily operation of the business.

A look at the greenhouses’ layout gives an idea of just what Backyard Farm’s crew of “personal gardeners” do each day. “Their job requires very physical work,” explains Darroch, “plus the attention to detail needed to keep each plant clean and healthy.” For each gardener, this means inspecting, de-leafing and pruning every 16-foot high plant in their personal garden of 10 rows, each of which stretches an eighth of a mile long. But Darroch was quick to correct my assumption that the staff were all young sprouts, citing 50 and even 60 year-olds as part of the farm’s lively workforce.

Backyard Farms values the ingenious and hardworking Yankee spirit that inspires these gardeners, providing them with benefits that include competitive pay, comprehensive health care, and paid time off. The company also cites an abiding interest in providing local jobs. That’s especially valuable for a town that shares the challenge of many of Maine’s riverside cities to reinvent themselves after their mills shut down more than fifty years ago.

Surprisingly, Darroch reveals that Madison, Maine has not only the workforce, but the climate conducive to nurturing a good tomato. “Keeping an operation of this size cool is even more challenging than heating it,” he explains, “so a northern climate like this is actually preferable. Madison also gets a fair amount of both sun and rain. Collecting and purifying the latter is just one of the environmentally sustainable practices we employ to respect this very pristine corner of the world.”

Backyard Farms uses that focus on efficiency to serve its commitment to supporting Maine communities as well. When I asked Darroch about how the company handled the decline in demand for their product during summer, when outdoor tomatoes are flourishing, he pointed to that need. “We ramp up donations to food banks in Maine and other locations within our 48-hour delivery sphere in the warmer months,” he says. “Many have added produce-specific storage facilities that allows our tomatoes to feed the hungry when the weather turns colder as well.” For Maine’s Good Shepherd Food Bank alone, this bumper crop of compassion totaled over 300,000 pounds last year.

When I commended Darroch on the company’s commitment to sharing its bounty with its neighbors, he spoke of the communal spirit that unites so much of Maine, making particular mention of Live and Work in Maine’s role in fostering it. “I’ve seen such a renaissance of restaurant and hospitality business in Southern Maine,” he shares, “and have hoped that growth could spread in different industries throughout our state. We’re doing our best to provide rewarding jobs here in Madison, and I’m grateful for Live and Work’s help in getting the word out about businesses like ours that are flourishing in other regions.”

That message does, indeed, seem to be traveling. At a friend’s house last weekend, I spotted the distinctive blue and white box of Backyard Farms tomatoes on her kitchen counter. When I mentioned them, she quickly exclaimed, “I love these tomatoes!” That’s just the kind of reaction that Jim Darroch and the rest of the people pruning and picking in Madison, Maine would hope to hear.

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