Quality Tomatoes at Backyard Farms

Attentiveness is Key to Quality Tomatoes at Backyard Farms

Backyard Farms team members at Award ceremony, from left to right: Arie van der Giessen, head grower; Mark Queenan, director of quality assurance and food safety; Missy Blackwell, food safety and quality coordinator; Tim Cunniff, executive vice president of sales; and Paul Mucci, COO and president.

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.”

About Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine. Reach her at lvaligra@gmail.com.

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