At a traffic-heavy intersection in the Montreal suburb of Ville Saint-Laurent, where cookie-cutter housing bumps up against a 70s-era shopping mall, “data nerds” are building what they tout as the largest rooftop farm in the world.
Low-flying jets roar overhead before touching down at nearby Trudeau International Airport as workers for Lufa Farms install the skeleton of a gigantic greenhouse – roughly the size of three football fields – on top of a sprawling office/warehouse complex.
“Bigger is better,” says Lauren Rathmell, Lufa Farms co-founder and greenhouse director.
She and her team, including life partner and Lufa Farms co-founder and CEO Mohamed Hage, have been refining their high-tech system for large-scale urban agriculture over the past 10 years. Team members, she says, are “data nerds” intent on making high-yield, year-round hydroponic rooftop farming an even more viable, sustainable and productive way to feed cities. So far, they have nurtured three successful rooftop greenhouses producing greens and vegetables, in the Montreal boroughs of Ahuntsic, Anjou and in the north shore city of Laval. Saint-Laurent is their fourth and most ambitious project to date.
“It’s a big jump,” said Ms. Rathmell, a former native of Vermont who studied biochemistry at McGill University. “We’re learning with each site. We learned a ton about everything that goes into responsible agriculture.”
Saint-Laurent will not only be the biggest, but also the most efficient in terms of energy conservation and smart water consumption, Ms. Rathmell said. Rainwater is captured and all water used for irrigation is recirculated in a closed-loop system. Being situated on a roof means significant energy savings thanks to the thermal benefits of shared space.
Other energy-saving features of the new greenhouse include double-paned glass and two sets of energy-saving screens for better protection against night-time heat loss.
And locally grown fresh vegetables help offset the big carbon footprint made by long-distance trucks hauling food across hundreds or even thousands of kilometres. Though Lufa Farms does offer customers a wide range of products from far away, including oranges, bananas and grapefruits, and cold-smoked wild sockeye salmon from British Columbia, in addition to its own produce.
No synthetic pesticides are used. Lufa Farms developed their own biocontrol software that closely monitors so-called “hot spots” – areas with a high concentration of pests, such as aphids, Ms. Rathmell said. Parasitic wasps and ladybugs are among the “good” insects used to attack the “bad” ones.
Among produce to be grown at the Saint-Laurent site are eggplants and more than 10 different tomato varieties.
Specially designed software programs are used to coordinate the warehouse logistics and distribution activities, as well as to monitor purchasing trends and adjust offerings accordingly. “We’re very data-centric,” Ms. Rathmell says. “We use data to drive decision-making.” Customers go online to pick and choose the products they want on a weekly basis. They can either collect their customized baskets at neighbourhood pickup points throughout the city or have them delivered to their door in electric vehicles. The cost is a minimum of $20 a basket, $5 extra for home delivery.
From about 100 weekly baskets in the early days, Lufa Farms now packs some 17,000 units a week and hopes to double that by next May, once Saint-Laurent is fully operational, Ms. Rathmell said. Through partnerships with producers, the company fills out its baskets with everything from cheese and homemade pasta sauce to free-range eggs.
The company now employs more than 300 people.
At 163,800 square feet, the Saint-Laurent site will boast a greater surface area than that of the three existing greenhouses combined.
Olivier Demers-Dubé, founder and CEO of ÉAU (Écosystèmes alimentaires urbains), an organization that helps communities set up their own urban farming operations, says one benefit of the large-scale commercial approach taken by Lufa Farms is that it contributes to heightening city-dwellers’ awareness of food sourcing and environmental concerns. “Helping bring people closer to farming, developing eco-awareness, familiarity with where your food comes from, on a regular basis, that’s all good,” he said. At the same time, there is a greater appreciation for the role rooftop greening can play not only in countering the “heat-island” effect in cities and promoting energy efficiency but also in urban densification, Mr. Demers-Dubé said.
Amélie Bourbonnais, co-founder of organic farm Les jardins du chat noir in the Montérégie region of Quebec and member of the Family Farmers Network, believes it’s important for consumers to be clear on the difference between what she and fellow local producers do and the Lufa Farms approach. “We don’t do reselling,” she said. [Lufa Farms] has “become kind of like an online grocery.”
Ms. Rathmell says financing in the company’s early days came in the form of “love money” from family and friends.
Subsequent investors in the privately held firm have included Quebec’s labour fund Fonds de solidarité FTQ and Canadian cleantech venture capital fund Cycle Capital Management Inc. “We certainly want to keep growing,” Ms. Rathmell said. Besides possible future locations in Montreal, Lufa Farms is also exploring even farther horizons, with potential new sites in Boston and Toronto.
For the Saint-Laurent greenhouse, a partnership was struck with Laval, Que.-based real estate developer Groupe Montoni, owner of the building. The two entities had already developed a good working relationship after striking a deal for a greenhouse on a Montoni building in Laval in 2013, says Ms. Rathmell.
Saint-Laurent mayor Alan DeSousa has proudly touted Lufa Farms’ arrival on his territory. The greenhouse “will facilitate residents’ access to local, sustainably grown products and further promote healthy habits,” he said in a recent news release. “It will also make it possible to fight against heat islands in our district, where more than 70% of the surface area is devoted to industrial and commercial activities.”
Ms. Rathmell says it’s great to be able to continue contributing to Montreal’s reputation as a global hub for sustainable urban agriculture. Lufa Farms claims bragging rights to launching the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, in 2011. Now, this latest project in Saint-Laurent “definitely positions Canada and Montreal well,” she said.
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