Attentiveness is Key to Quality Tomatoes at Backyard Farms
Food Quality & Safety
by Lori Valigra
Maine-based tomato grower wins 13th annual Food Quality & Safety Award
Growing vine-ripened tomatoes in the dead of a cold, lightless Maine winter and in humid summers is no small task, nor is preventing insect infestations that can damage plants and shut down greenhouses.
But this is the world Arie van der Giessen, head grower at Backyard Farms of Madison, Maine, faces daily. He readily admits what runs his life: “The plants are the boss,” he says. “They need daily attention. Day and night. The last thing I think about before bed is the plants, and they are my first thought in the morning.”
Connected via a computer, van der Giessen can check statistics from sensors in the company’s two greenhouses, such as temperature inside and outside and whether conditions are too wet or dry. Fertilizer, pH, calcium, growing medium, air flow between plants, signs of pests, and other aspects of the plants also are checked regularly. He walks around each greenhouse to personally look at the 420,000 plants growing at any given time with one assistant, and he hopes to hire another. “I walk 5 to 6 miles a day to check the greenhouses,” he says.
It’s that kind of dedication to quality by van der Giessen and Backyard’s 200 other employees, combined with technology, cleaning, employee training, and other factors, that won this tomato company the 13th annual Food Quality & Safety Award (formerly the Food Quality Award). Members of Backyard’s team received the Award at a ceremony on April 9 during the 2014 Food Safety Summit in Baltimore, Md. The Award, sponsored by DuPont Nutrition & Health and presented by Food Quality & Safety magazine, honors a North American quality assurance/quality control team that makes exceptional contributions to food safety and consumer satisfaction.
“Global food security is important to DuPont, and it is vital to recognize efforts that keep our food safe all along the food chain,” says Rob McPheeters, business leader for Diagnostics, DuPont Nutrition & Health. He adds that companies such as Backyard demonstrate that their commitment to food safety not only protects the food supply, but also makes good business sense.
“We try to find the highest level certifications, like SQF 2000 [Level 3], or the latest certification. We are proactive about it. A lot of the certification is customer-driven,” says Tim Cunniff, executive vice president of sales at the tomato grower. Cunniff adds that while his company charges more for its vine-ripened product, customers are willing to pay for the quality. “We take more of a holistic approach to business,” he says.
Mark Queenan, the company’s director of quality assurance and food safety, notes that Backyard adheres to Good Agricultural Practices, Good Handling Practices, and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls. He points out that the company became the first farm in Maine to be USDA GAP Certified in 2007, and in 2010 it became the first farm in Maine and New England and one of the first in the U.S. to be SQF Level 3 certified. In 2012, it was the first farm in Maine to be GAP Harmonized certified, and it is striving to become Global GAP PSS (produce safety standard) certified in 2014. In addition, Backyard’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, program addresses potential bacterial, chemical, or physical contaminants.
The company is also being proactive to meet forthcoming Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requirements related to its business. “The biggest difference I see with FSMA is the need to address and implement preventative controls. You need to monitor and to maintain records,” says Queenan. “You have to be able to show science-based methods are working.”
Backyard Farms employee provides a final quality check for tomatoes on the vine.
Backyard started in 2004 with the realization that the tomatoes in the grocery stores were grown in Canada, Mexico, or Holland, and weren’t ripened on the vine, and often not quite red in color on the store shelves. The company harvested its first hydroponic tomato crop in early 2007 from its 24-acre greenhouse in northern Maine, and added a second greenhouse in the summer of 2009 with another 18 acres of growing space. The total of 42 acres is equivalent to about 32 football fields.
Fiscal year 2013 saw its primary tomato variety improve to 6.2 kilograms per square meter (kg/m2) from 4.7 kg/m2 from the prior year. Its smaller tomatoes increased to 2.4 kg/m2 from 2.3 kg/ m2, and its largest tomatoes increased to 4.4 kg/m2 from 3.2 kg/m2. That translates into growing more tomatoes and decreasing waste, Queenan notes.
The tomatoes are checked regularly from the time the seeds are grown at the external plant propagator through the shipment of the young plants to Backyard’s greenhouses, then at the greenhouses as they grow and are harvested, and through them then being boxed and shipped.
“Once the plants are in here [the greenhouses], they are monitored continuously by the growers,” adds Queenan.
Working in a hydroponic environment has its plusses and minuses. “There’s a clear advantage to having a hydroponic environment that is cement and steel enclosed with potable water systems in place to closely monitor quality,” he says. “We’re sticklers about handwashing.” The heated water system also is enclosed and can run at a consistent temperature. And there are bathrooms and plenty of sinks for employees to wash their hands, compared to an open field.
On the other hand, once the cold Maine winter sets in, the warm, moist greenhouse beckons a variety of insects, which need to be controlled. “You can’t afford to have an issue,” adds Cunniff. “It’s devastating.”
Backyard discovered that firsthand last July when a whitefly infestation forced the company to destroy all of its 420,000 tomato plants and start over, eventually not producing tomatoes for a total of six months. It cleaned out both of its greenhouses, delaying deliveries to some 30 retailers across New England, including Hannaford, Shaw’s, Roche Bros., Walmart, Wilson Farm, and Whole Foods for up to 10 weeks. In August 2013, the company deemed the new starter plants for a second crop grown at its external propagator partner to be inferior, and the company sought a new supplier. Backyard had to furlough all but essential personnel until after last Labor Day and then hired them back as the business got back on its feet. After fully cleaning the greenhouses and hiring van der Giessen as head grower, it got both greenhouses up and operational by October 2013, rehired all its employees by December, and then held a “new crop” celebration on January 8 of this year.
Cunniff remembers the ordeal as being horrible, but credits the hard work of the employees for helping the company turn around. “Going forward, one thing that is different is the level of diligence and the amount of monitoring,” he says. “There’s more time, more eyes, more feet on the ground. It’s a different level in terms of assurances now. You can’t fix what you can’t see and aren’t looking for. It’s both systems and people.” He says as a result, the company had the best January to March it’s ever had in terms of tons of tomatoes shipped.
Preparing plants in the greenhouse that will eventually help produce an estimated 26 million pounds of Backyard Farms tomatoes over the next year.
In 2013, the company invested in new technologies to improve the safety and quality of its products, including four Amerivap Corp. steam cleaners for its food contact surfaces on its packing lines. The packing equipment is not washdown and is extremely sensitive to moisture. The company has tested combinations of sanitation technologies that are low moisture and environmentally friendly.
It also added a no-rinse vegetable wash called ProSan that works against disease-causing pathogens, spoilage organisms, and tomato plant pathogens. And it has replaced transfer belting in its packhouse 1 to improve cleaning and hygiene.
Last year it also bought two Hygiena EnSURE quality monitoring systems. The handheld units for adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, monitoring help the company prove the cleanliness of its surfaces and its validation processes within seconds, according to Queenan. The systems also can test for coliforms and E.coli at the beginning of a packhouse shift and reveal the results before the end of the day. Backyard also uses Hygiena’s MicroSnap rapid E.coli protocol for detection and to keep the bio-burden low.
The company has enhanced seed, seedline, and mature tomato plant testing by hiring a plant pathologist/consultant to help it create and implement tomato pathogen protocols. It is now using RT-PCR, PCR, and Bio-PCR methods that can find minute amounts of bacteria, viruses, and viroids. Backyard also started swabbing at the plant propagator to monitor for pathogens.
Integrated pest management (IPM) starts at the seed, according to Erika Verrier, director of IPM at Backyard. She says that early scouting for problems sets Backyard apart from many of its competitors.
“It starts at the seed. We see if the plants are up to our standard quality. And we do IPM until the plants arrive at our greenhouses,” she says. “We test all the seeds and plants at the propagation facility to assure we don’t invite anything into our greenhouses.” Common tomato pests are the whiteflies and aphids. Plant diseases like botrytis (brown fungus) also can be a problem in a greenhouse. “If you build it, they will come,” Verrier jokes.
She says a group of scouts look at every plant in the greenhouse in a two- to three-week period. “We’ve gotten good at managing it over the last year,” she says. Every plant gets individual attention. The result: a significant decrease in botrytis in the last year. The disease had actually decreased the company’s crop density 30 percent the prior year, but now the density is back to normal.
Backyard has to be particularly diligent because it uses an interplant technique, which means there is a continuous crop year round. Young plants are grown near old plants on the same gutter. Each tomato crop cycle lasts six months, with two months of overlap between the aging crop and the newly interplanted crop. “Our scouting is more intense in the two months when we have the two crops going at once,” comments Verrier.
Of the current IPM team of 15 people, about half are scouts. She says the scouting part of the IPM team is unusual in the industry—the company has a designated team of full-time scouts rather than relying on consultants. “We work as a team to determine the best options for control. So we can explore other alternatives besides pesticides,” she says.
One focus is on biological controls, which are working well for whiteflies—they now are at historical lows in the greenhouses. “We rear native beneficial insects on host plants in greenhouses to control whiteflies,” says Verrier. In Maine, the insect is the Dicyphus hesperus, which acts as a biological army against whiteflies, aphids, and moth eggs. The alternative is to mechanically scrape off the whitefly or other infestations with blades. “In a greenhouse, things move quickly,” she says.
One of the things Verrier says Queenan has highlighted that sets Backyard apart from other tomato greenhouses is minimizing the risk of plants not meeting the company’s quality standards. And that means looking for new ways to assure quality, and to do so sustainably.
“We’re currently developing a habitat landscaping project around the perimeter of the greenhouses,” comments Verrier. “We want to attract beneficial insects and have an additional banking system to rear more biological controls.”
Valigra is a writer based in Harrison, Maine. Reach her at email@example.com.