Urban Agriculture Pioneer Lufa Farms Opens Third Rooftop Greenhouse Farm

Urban Agriculture Pioneer Lufa Farms Opens Third Rooftop Greenhouse Farm

Urban Agriculture Pioneer Lufa Farms Opens Third Rooftop Greenhouse Farm

More from Susan Schwartz, Montreal Gazette

Published on: January 18, 2017 | Last Updated: January 18, 2017 11:48 AM EST

There were two important beginnings in Mo Hage’s world last summer: In July he and his wife, Lauren Rathmell, welcomed their daughter into the world. And in June, work started on construction of the third commercial rooftop greenhouse in the burgeoning urban farming company the couple co-founded, Lufa Farms.

Their daughter, Dani, is six months old. And last week Lufa Farms began to harvest produce from that greenhouse, set atop an industrial building in Anjou. The first week brought mega-sized radishes, watercress, Persian cress, arugula and spinach from among more than 40 varieties of greens started out there as seedlings in December; this week, tatsoi, red and green bok choy, Chinese cabbage, romaine and Boston lettuce were added to the mix. Next week there will be more.

The produce is sold to directly to consumers, to subscribers – Lufavores, they are called – who find it in the baskets they order online, along with produce from small family farms, almost all local, and other products including meat, cheese, baked goods, fish and prepared foods, all sourced by Lufa Farms. The year 2016 was a good one: The Lufa Farms subscriber base grew by fully 50 per cent to more than 9,000 families. 

Hage and Rathmell, partners in life before they were business partners, had a vision: to create an ecologically — and economically — sustainable model for urban farming and to help to change the way people eat. It took the expertise of many and the investment of $2 million from family friends and others, but in 2011 they opened what was reputed to be the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, atop an industrial building in Ahuntsic.

Radishes are ready for harvest at the rooftop greenhouse built by Lufa Farms in Montreal. PIERRE OBENDRAUF / MONTREAL GAZETTE

A second, in Laval, followed in 2013; the newest, at 63,000 square feet more than double the size of the first, is the largest. Produce is grown hydroponically through a system of plastic tubing that feeds them, recycles the water and reuses it; the circulation system and microclimate are managed by computer software. 

Speaking during a Ted-X talk at the Universiteé de Montréal in 2012, Hage observed that our food often travels great distances before it gets to us, losing flavour and nutritional value along the way, that cultivars are often chosen for toughness, and that industrial farms can be “massive consumers of land and water.” A rooftop greenhouse, on the other hand, uses no land. And because it absorbs heat from the building below, it uses 50 per cent less energy than one on the ground – and reduces energy costs for building owners.

How a rooftop farm helps to feed a city

Rathmell, who has a biochemistry degree from McGill University, serves as greenhouse director at Lufa Farms and oversees the farming, plant-science activities and marketing. During a tour on Tuesday of the airy new greenhouse, she pointed out how seedlings are started in small containers of ground-up coconut husks and then planted. Growing times vary, with arugula taking six weeks from seedling to harvest, for instance, and cauliflower twice that. She pointed out four varieties of bok choy, a range of herbs, kohlrabi and mustard greens. Her favourite vegetable, by far, is rainbow chard, with its coloured stems and delicate flavour.

The building on which the Ahuntsic greenhouse sits also contains the Lufa Farms warehouse, where subscribers’ baskets are assembled. Lufavores start out with baskets made up of $30 worth of food, mostly produce, and have until midnight to customize or finalize orders for the following day: The minimum order is $15. At midnight, the “marketplace” is closed and credit cards billed. Partners log in on an online portal to check what was sold that day, then work all night to prepare it.

Lauren Rathmell as a look at fresh greens growing of the rooftop greenhouse built by Lufa Farms in Montreal.PIERRE OBENDRAUF / MONTREAL GAZETTE

“I like the fact that I can customize my baskets and that products are environmentally friendly,” said Verdun resident Sherri Wallace, who has been a Lufavore for about two years. “I get mostly vegetables and, with time, I find the variety has increased. Produce is mostly local but they offer some citrus and collaborate with a farm in Florida so we get a few exotic things like avocados, oranges and grapefruit. And I find the cost reasonable.”

Because only what is sold is harvested, produce is always fresh and both waste and need for storage are eliminated.  There are more than 300 pick-up points in cafés, pharmacies and yoga studies around Montreal and, for an extra charge of $5, orders can be delivered to subscribers’ home by a fleet of four electric cars now working at capacity. Recently drop-off points have been added in Quebec City and Trois-Rivières, where the company has growers and producers.

West Island resident Joel Assouline, whose Lufa Farms shopping list includes produce, dairy, some meat, and pasta, said he admires the company’s transparency. “What is cool is that even though they have their own tomatoes, they still carry tomatoes from other farmers. They have products that compete.”

He said he finds the online shopping cart “so user-friendly, with nice pictures. And your basket stays open all week.” Assouline, who has orders delivered to his home, likes also having access “to local and ethical farmers … When you go on their website, you have access to the information of every producer you buy from. For me, if a farmer is disclosing his name and his address, already it’s a good sign.”




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