Lufa Farms is a Montreal-based company which opened the world’s first commercial-scale urban rooftop greenhouse in 2011. The 31,000 sq. ft. greenhouse sits atop a non-descript building at 1400 Antonio-Barbeau, just off l’Acadie Boulevard near the Marché Central. Against the setting of brown-bricked industrial buildings, the illustrious and translucent greenhouse strikes you like a beacon. It’s hard to miss.
The area used to be known as part of the bustling hub of Montreal’s historic clothing industry and although some manufacturers are still present, it is now mostly occupied by an eclectic mix of business and industry. Ironically, or by a twist of fate, few people are aware that even before the first stitches were sewn into garments, the land was actually a zoned farming area. Vegetables once grew all around the building where the greenhouse farm now stands.
Other rooftop greenhouses exist (McGill University’s rooftop garden for one) but none that are commercial farms. Lufa Farms is pioneering a viable and sustainable model for city rooftop farms.
In February 2011 they seeded the farm and by April they had their first harvest – eggplants. There are no harmful chemicals used. Everything at Lufa Farms is pesticide, fungicide and herbicide free. They now grow and deliver freshly picked produce daily to ‘pick up points’ for close 3,000 local subscribers. Using the company’s website, subscribers can choose from available fresh produce and other local food specialties to fill up their weekly baskets. There are approximately 130 pick-up points around Montreal, the West Island and Laval. A second rooftop farm located in Laval is scheduled to open in November.
Since Lufa Farms started producing its fresh and responsibly grown vegetables for local consumers, the company has also partnered with area farmers, like organic-potato grower Mario Bessette to supplement its offerings with vegetables unsuitable to greenhouse cultivation.
“Lufa Farms gives us visibility and market access which would be almost impossible to establish ourselves,” said Bessette. “It makes real sense to both the grower and the consumer.”
Two years after starting the partner program, Lufa Farms now represents some 40-odd Quebec organic farmers and producers who focus on high-quality, sustainable food, everything from root vegetables and maple syrup, to cheese and fresh-baked bread. Organic eggs will soon be available.
“Our customers choose from among the broadest array of local, responsible and organic foods in Quebec,” said Lufa Farms President Mohamed Hage. “We like to say ‘we bring the farmers market to you.’ ”
Marc-André Royal, a Montreal chef and baker whose products Lufa Farms distributes, sees the direct-to-consumer approach as relevant to the producer as it is to the consumer.
“We start baking each day at 2 a.m. to make sure that our fresh, quality breads are available for the baskets that day. Nothing is fresher and nothing tastes as good,” said Royal.
Lufa Farms model their product distribution on the community-supported agriculture (CSA) approach – with some key differences. Instead of delivering only during the traditional local growing season, their baskets are available all year, because the greenhouses can grow vegetables all year long.
“Lufa Farms has been a great alternative to traditional CSA farms,” said subscriber Eva Chan of Bois-Franc in St-Laurent. “It’s always a treat to pick up my weekly basket!”
With 4 to 5 new locations being added weekly and subscribers joining at a rate of close to 100 per week, the announcement of the November opening of their second rooftop greenhouse in Laval could not have come too soon.
The high-tech rooftop greenhouse in Laval will triple the company’s cultivation capacity and expand the year-around sustainable food and fresh-produce offerings to area consumers. Located west of Labelle Boulevard near Highway 440, the 43,000 sq. ft. greenhouse is nearly 50 percent larger than Lufa Farms’ original rooftop greenhouse on Antonio-Barbeau.
“The additional greenhouse allows us to offer a wider range of fresh, premium vegetables, all grown responsibly and delivered daily to local consumers,” said Lauren Rathmell, founding member and greenhouse director. “Now we have space to grow more than 20 specialty tomatoes including pink cherries, Striped German, and legendary Cherokee Purples – just some of the delicious and unique vegetables we grow that are not available from grocery stores.”
At their open house on September 15th, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mohamed Hage, the founder and president of Lufa Farms. The greenhouse is strictly regulated to keep it free from any unwanted organisms and insects. Before going up to the rooftop farm, I was required to clean my hands with anti-bacterial lotion and then the bottom of my shoes by stepping into in a shallow pool of water (on a mat) as I walked through the doors. Nobody except employees are allowed to touch anything or go past the small viewing area. To do so, one must be wearing a lab coat and insect screen.
Mohamed is 32 years old and originally from Lebanon. He went on to study electrical engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa for two years. When I asked him how that led to Lufa Farms, he explained:
“I come from a Lebanese family who have a long, long history of farming… an agricultural heritage that goes back farther than anyone can remember. In Lebanon, farming is more of an art… it is challenging because of the climate, the market, access… I grew up in a family of food artisans!”
That type of education is invaluable.
In 2001 he took a serious interest in agriculture, inspired by the desire to try and find technologies to help his family and people. Mohamed took it upon himself to study hydroponics and the technological and agricultural industries.
“In 2006… at 2:00 am in the morning I had an ‘a-ha’ moment… rooftop farms!” he said.
The rest is history.
Developing sustainable agricultural is not only the way of the future, it is also economically and environmentally intelligent. Mohamed explains that similar to a ‘green roof’, a rooftop greenhouse will typically reduce a building’s utility costs. The structure insulates in the winter so the floors underneath do not need as much heat. In the summer the greenhouse provides a degree of cooling through plant transpiration, so that the building will have a lower demand for air conditioning. If the design operates as planned, the owner will be able to earn credits toward certification as a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design building.
It wasn’t an easy road.
“My colleagues and I have had to become evangelists and urban pioneers to overcome hurdles related to zoning, building codes and engineering, legal, leasehold, and taxation issues.”
And his future plans, his goals?
“We are looking for bigger and bigger roofs for our farms. We want to be able to bring our produce and have pick-up points closer to peoples’ homes or their work places… like stopping off at your local dépanneur or grocery store. Ultimately, to help make cities more self-sufficient… rooftop greenhouses are emerging as a logical vehicle to deliver a year-round harvest of fresh, local produce to city dwellers.”
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