MADISON, Maine — A single greenhouse that covers 24 acres is so huge that it’s hard to fathom, but for Backyard Farms of Madison, it wasn’t big enough by a long shot.
With more than 40 million pounds of tomatoes sold since the first crop in 2007, the company decided to build a second greenhouse of about 18 acres. On Tuesday, employees and hundreds of guests celebrated the first crop out of the new building.
“We are very, very proud to tell anyone that Maine is a great place to locate a business,” said Backyard Farms President Roy Lubetkin. “We were so well-received that we couldn’t keep up with demand.”
It takes 200 full- and part-time employees to tend to the more than 450,000 tomato plants in New England’s largest greenhouse operation. The company hired about 75 of those workers this summer to accommodate the new greenhouse.
The plants themselves are on a grand scale, some climbing 10 to 12 feet up a network of support wires. Bigger than a broomstick at the stalk, they’re full of dozens of picture-perfect tomatoes. An army of bumblebees takes care of the pollination and in the winter, grow lights mimic the sun to ensure year-round harvests.
To help keep it warm, the company is exploring the use of a renewable energy source, possibly wood, for which it received a $500,000 grant and loan guarantee from the federal Department of Agriculture. The company currently uses propane for heat.
In advocating for the funding in 2007, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, R-Maine, cited that the company had hired locally and purchased $3.5 million in goods and services from local providers.
“With energy costs at all-time highs, we believe it is critical to support innovative projects like the Backyard Farm’s proposed wood-fired boiler system,” the senators wrote in the joint request to the USDA in 2007, according to a copy of the letter provided Tuesday by a Collins staffer. “Backyard Farms has already demonstrated its commitment to the community.”
Melissa Doyle, a Backyard Farms spokeswoman, said the wood-fired boiler system has not been installed and that the company “is exploring its renewable energy options” with help from the grant.
The town’s public utility, Madison Electric Works, which sells electricity at one of the lowest rates in New England, was also a big lure for Backyard Farms to locate here.
Gov. John Baldacci, who was among Tuesday’s guests, credited the work force of 200 local employees for propelling the company’s success. He addressed them directly.
“You are setting an example here,” said Baldacci. “It’s about you being a productive and capable work force. We can do anything we want to do in this state.”
To Madison Town Manager Norman Dean, the prospect of gigantic greenhouses coming to Madison seemed unreal at first, but they have become a major economic driver.
“How many towns have had the opportunity to say their employment levels have actually increased during this recession?” said Dean. “Today we look around and see 42 acres under glass. You can only think what an accomplishment this has been.”
Lubetkin said the company intends to expand the number of tomato varieties it offers and maybe in the future try other produce such as peppers, cucumbers and eggplants. He said he hopes the second greenhouse isn’t the last.
“When we set up shop here in Madison we had expansion in mind,” he said. “We envisioned a second greenhouse and we hope there will be more. Ultimately the consumer will decide.”