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Backyard Farms delays tomato shipments

Last month, Backyard Farms had to destroy its entire crop of 420,000 tomato plants due to an infestation of whiteflies.

Stacey Cramp For The New York Times/File 2010

Last month, Backyard Farms had to destroy its entire crop of 420,000 tomato plants due to an infestation of whiteflies.

Backyard Farms, New England’s largest producer of premium tomatoes, said it won’t be able to ship new produce until January and will furlough employees starting after Labor Day.

This is the second setback for the Maine company this summer, which in July had to destroy its entire crop of 420,000 tomato plants due to an infestation of whiteflies. The tomatoes are sold by about 30 retailers across New England, including Hannaford, Roche Bros., Shaw’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods.

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Backyard Farms had planned to start shipping fruit in October, but on Friday said the new plants were inferior and the grower would need to find another supplier.

“They don’t meet our high quality standards,” said Backyard Farms spokesman Michael Aalto. “We are rejecting the plants.”

Until now, the company did not have to lay off any of its 200 workers, largely because they were needed to help clean up after the infestation. The farm grows 27 million pounds of tomatoes year-round in a pair of greenhouses in the tiny mill town of Madison, Maine. The whitefly is a common greenhouse pest that coats leaves with a white residue that causes wilting and attracts black mold to the fruit.

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The further delay in replanting, however, means there won’t be enough work to go around, forcing the furloughs. Aalto said the company plans to call back all employees, some starting as early as October. He would not say how much the delay and infestation will cost the farm.

Backyard Farms is primarily owned by employees of Fidelity Investments, the Boston financial services behemoth. The story goes that Edward “Ned” C. Johnson III , Fidelity’s chairman and chief executive, took a shine to the business out of his love of tomatoes and search for the perfect one. At Backyard, the tomato can be picked red and ripe, shipped still on the vine, and arrive in stores within 24 hours.

“It’s too bad they have that situation,” said Tom Murray, vice president of produce/floral at Roche Bros. Supermarkets. “They are a great grower.”

Murray said the supermarket chain stocks a variety of tomatoes and that customers won’t be affected by Backyard’s absence. He plans to carry the tomatoes again when they’re available.

In a statement, Whole Foods Markets said it is monitoring the situation closely and currently relying on other sources for tomatoes.

“We have been in regular contact with Backyard Farms throughout this difficult time,” Mike Bethmann, produce coordinator for the North Atlantic region, said.

“We are eager to begin purchasing from Backyard Farms again, just as soon as they are able to supply to us.”

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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