BY JESSICA HALL

Portland Press Herald

The loss of tomato crops from commercial grower Backyard Farms and a wetter-than-normal June that doused the crops of more traditional tomato farmers have combined to create a later and leaner season for locally grown tomatoes in Maine.

“It’s been one of the slowest and most ridiculous seasons. Demand is very high because of that,” said Amy LeBlanc, owner of Whitehill Farms in East Wilton. “We’re going to start pruning to tell the plants to hurry up. It’s been a slow season due to rain in June. We’re about 10 days later, maybe two weeks later than normal.”

The growing season for tomatoes in southern and midcoast Maine runs from May through October, but the season can be shorter in northern parts of the state. The beginning of August is the typical start of the tomato harvest in Maine, but this year has been trending a few weeks behind.

Some farmers said they have done well with tomatoes grown inside greenhouses or hoop houses, but tomatoes grown outside have been struggling.

“Tomatoes inside hoop houses — or grown inside — did well, but we’re just about out of those,” said Bob Spear, owner of Spear’s Vegetable Farm in Nobleboro. “We’re still waiting for outside tomatoes to come up.”

Tomatoes are the fourth-most-popular fresh-market vegetable in the country, trailing potatoes, lettuce and onions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though botanically a fruit, the USDA classifies tomatoes as vegetables.

Maine farmers say a soggy June — when rainfall in Portland was 3.5 inches above the normal of 3.79 inches — delayed fruit production and contributed to disease. Excess water can wash away essential nutrients and oxygen in the soil that tomato plants need to thrive and can cause stem bases to rot and flowering buds to attract gray mold and other diseases, farmers said.

“It’s been a weird season. We’ve been getting more calls from customers looking for tomatoes. People just can’t find locally grown product like they’re used to,” said Jodie Jordan, of Elwive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

“There’s more demand right now, but we’re expecting tomatoes this week, so demand will drop off as supply picks up,” Jordan said.

Things are looking up as well at Green Spark Farm, also in Cape Elizabeth, which has begun harvesting about 1,600 pounds of tomatoes a week, said Mary Ellen Chadd.

Prices for locally grown tomatoes vary widely, depending on the variety. At a Portland farmers market on Wednesday, prices ranged from $1 per pound for beefsteak tomatoes to $5 a pound for unique heirloom varieties.

Hannaford supermarkets in Portland advertised locally grown tomatoes for $2.99 per pound.

Problems with this year’s tomato crop at commercial grower Backyard Farms also have contributed to a shortage of Maine-grown tomatoes in stores.

Madison-based Backyard has had to destroy two crops of tomato plants this summer. The company, which typically produces more than 27 million pounds of tomatoes each year in greenhouses that cover 42 acres in central Maine, had to destroy one crop because of a whitefly infestation. A second crop was destroyed when Backyard Farms decided the replacement seedling plants were inferior.

As a result, Backyard Farms, which sells to Northeast retailers including Hannaford, Whole Foods and Walmart, said its tomatoes won’t be available until early 2014.

“It’s a very clear fact that Backyard Farms isn’t producing tomatoes, which means there’s not as many local tomatoes in stores right now. Therefore demand is strong for any local production,” said Spear, who sells his produce to Hannaford and Shaw’s.

“We are still hoping to be coming up with tomatoes in the next week or two. We’re hoping Mother Nature will cooperate, and we’ll get tomatoes soon. Time will tell,” Spear said.