Local Flavor: Bay Produce

Local Flavor: Bay Produce

DSC_0022Maybe you have seen Bay Produce’s pint containers of bright red grape tomatoes, perfectly plump slicer tomatoes, and long European cucumbers in the Produce department at the Co-op. They seem simple enough, but what you don’t see is the story behind them. It is one of caring and compassion. You see, Bay Produce was founded to provide meaningful work to adults with intellectual disabilities.

Bay Produce is part of the Challenge Center, an organization that provides programs and services to developmentally disabled adults. It was founded in 1969 when a group of parents who had adult children with intellectual disabilities approached the Catholic Charities Bureau to set up services in Superior, Wis. The Challenge Center added Bay Produce to its offerings in 1986.

That year, Bay Produce started with a single, half-acre greenhouse that could only be used for a limited growing season. The seasonality of the greenhouse left Bay Produce’s workers without a job for a few months at a time. Plus, each season they had to reintroduce their tomatoes to the market.

After some consideration, Bay Produce added a one-acre winterized greenhouse in 1996. Now, they operate out of the original greenhouse, along with a large greenhouse, a plant nursery, and several warehouses.

The one-acre greenhouse was built with a computerized environmental control system and supplemental lighting for the winter months. This allows Bay Produce to provide employment all year round, and keeps their veggies on shelves in grocery stores and on plates in restaurants.

Twenty-five workers (known as consumers) do all it takes to grow beefsteak slicer tomatoes in the larger greenhouse. A head grower, warehouse manager, warehouse assistant, four plant technicians, and a maintenance person round out the personnel it takes to make Bay Produce grow. They use the half-acre greenhouse to produce grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and red, yellow, and orange peppers on a seasonal basis. The crew starts plants and grows basil in the nursery. Warehouses are used to store product, packaging, and equipment.

The activities at Bay Produce on any given day vary depending on the time of year. Tomato crops start the growing cycle in December. Harvesting begins in April, followed by tearing out the old plants in November, when the cycle begins again. The managers also adapt the day’s work according to the continuously changing needs and wants of their consumers.

The one-acre greenhouse contains approximately 10,000 plants and produces around 35,000 pounds of tomatoes per year. Tomato plants can grow as tall as 35 feet high, and will gain as much as one foot each week in the summer months.

It takes a great deal of equipment to operate these greenhouses:  carts, pruners, a forklift, knives, fertilizer, coconut fiber, vents, fans, irrigation systems, shade curtain, CO2 burners, sump pumps, filters, and lights. Lots and lots of lights! Bay Produce also utilizes bumblebees to pollinate the plants, a computer system for water, light, and heat, and a delivery van to get their products out to customers.

Speaking of delivery, Bay Produces distributes their products every day to various areas nearby: Superior, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Cloquet, and the North Shore of Minnesota. A number of customers (like the Co-op) also pick up their products here, and receive a discount for doing so.

Bay Produce has seen its share of challenges since it first opened. In 1987, a vandal struck the greenhouse and killed the crop. The community was outraged, and rallied to support the organization with financial contributions and other assistance. On the positive side, it brought Bay Produce to the attention of the local community, and they have continued to support the business ever since.

More recently, the growers at Bay Produce occasionally deal with a disease in the greenhouse that has made growing challenging. The bacterial canker (or clavibacter) attacks the plant’s vascular system and is 100% fatal, according to Bay Produce grower, Richard Fisher. They have lost many plants in the past due to this disease. It spreads mainly through the air on dust particles, making it difficult to combat. The employees have worked hard to clean and disinfect the facilities in a concerted effort to control the spread of the disease.

Looking to the future, the folks at Bay Produce are interested in experimenting more with herbs including dill, cilantro, and mint. They even had a lively discussion about growing hops and planting an apple orchard.

Still, while the tomatoes tend to get all the glory because of their amazing flavor, the real heart of Bay Produce is truly the people who work there. Richard Fisher, Twyla Sjoblom, Don Gitz, Rob Wnuk, Steve Fisher, Ryan Herubin, Scott Sis, Ryan Jodell and Amber Tilli-McKercher work tirelessly to assist their consumers in reaching their full potential as workers. Their consumers (whom we can’t name for confidentiality purposes) are the core of the business’s team. Bay Produce would not exist without them.

And they all take great pride in producing quality tomatoes. The workers at Bay Produce love seeing them in grocery stores, and get especially excited when someone says, “Those are the only tomatoes I buy!”