Bay Produce

12 08 2009

By Emily Larson

“I make the boxes!” the man told me proudly as he held up a shallow box reading “The Superior Tomato” for me to DSC_8365photograph. The completed box continued down the line on a conveyor belt to be filled with hand-picked tomatoes, weighed, stickered and delivered to customers. Behind me, three women selected grape tomatoes one by one, inspected them for quality, and placed them into clear plastic containers. They paused only to smile widely for a photograph with their pile of grape tomatoes, and then carried on diligently.

Bay Produce in Superior, Wisconsin is a year round hydroponic tomato hot house run by the Challenge Center, a rehabilitation center for adults with developmental disabilities. 365 days a year, Bay Produce grows delicious vine ripened tomatoes bursting with the taste of summer. “We grow a great tomato,” said Debbie Gergen, Work Services Director, and they grow a lot of them. Over the course of a year, Bay Produce grows over 350,000 pounds of beefsteak tomatoes, 50,000 pounds of grape tomatoes and also grows red, yellow and orange bell peppers. Each is hand picked when it is vine ripened.

The grower, Henk Vandenbrink, and two plant technicians guide and teach 25 paid consumers, all of whom are developmentally disabled. Much of the work in the greenhouse and packing warehouse is done by the consumers. Jobs include: picking the tomatoes and peppers off the vine, hand pollinating some of the plants, individually examining each tomato and rating its quality, box making, applying Bay Produce stickers on tomatoes and plastic containers. Each step prepares the tomatoes to ship to local grocery stores and restaurants.

Bay Produce has been in operation for twenty plus years with the goal of providing employment opportunities for the consumers and generating revenue for the Challenge Center. Bay Produce seeks to employ and empower people with developmental disabilities and to sell a quality product.   The consumers of Bay Produce are proud of their company and hold it to a high standard. Sometimes when Debbie helps out with packing, one of the consumers will tap her hand that she is not following the quality standards and isn’t scrutinizing the tomatoes close enough. This forces Debbie to pay closer attention to her work as they scrutinize her packing. “They own it; it’s not just a job. They are very proud of the role they have at Bay Produce,” Debbie said.

Debbie and the Challenge Center also believe that Bay Produce serves another important function for their clients: therapy. All day long, their job challenges their decision-making processes and bodies as they are forced to think, analyze and work with the plants. Therapy sessions are not isolated to a clinic room, but are in and amongst the tomato plants and next to stacks of boxes.

Tim, a man with cerebral palsy, cannot speak and struggles to move his hands. Henk has taught him how to hand pollinate the flowers on the plants. Three days a week, Tim walks down the long rows of tomato plants and utilizes the pollinator that vibrates the truss so the flower becomes pollinated. Six to eight weeks later, a vine riped tomato is ready to pick off the vine.   When I saw him, he sat on a scooter and slowly made his way down one long row, picking all the ripe grape tomatoes. When Tim works at Bay Produce, he must make decisions as well as use the muscles and coordination in his hand; “They are constantly forced to think,” Henk explained, and because plants grow and change, nothing is ever the same.

DSC_8334Two years ago, Debbie saw an article in the newspaper about St. Luke’s Hospitals local food efforts and realized Bay Produce fit perfectly with their mission. “It makes sense to have a partnership with them,” she said. And for the hospital, they have the joy of fresh, delicious local tomatoes all year round. Because of the volume of tomatoes grown, Bay Produce can provide more than enough tomatoes to feed the hospital. Not only that, the hospital supports the efforts of a wonderful organization and allows them to continue serving their employees.

St. Luke’s support is not an isolated case. The Duluth and Superior communities have been very supportive of their work, and they have made Bay Produce what it is today. They have the unique opportunity to buy fresh, vine ripened tomatoes all year round. In Duluth, MN in the dead of winter, few things would provide more refreshment or more hope for the coming summer than a red and juicy tomato.

To view more photos of Bay Produce, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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