There’s an old debate that tends to come up when discussing local produce in Canada: how can we rely on local ingredients when we can’t grow essentials like tomatoes in the winter in our northern climates?
Despite never growing a tomato in their lives, that question mulled around in entrepreneurs Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell’s heads until they launched Lufa Farms together in 2008. Their response to that question? The world’s first commercial urban rooftop greenhouse, which first opened in Montreal in 2011. Produce is delivered to doorsteps and pickup points in customizable food baskets alongside food from nearby farms, as well as local artisans like bakers and cheesemakers.
“We live in Montreal, so it’s really cold in the winter, you get a lot of snow, so a greenhouse is ideal because you can grow year-round,” said Lufa Farms’ communication director Caroline Bélanger. “Then to do it on a commercial scale allows more people to have access to local food that’s done responsibly and it’s just better for the environment in the long run.”
Growing food on a rooftop reduces the carbon-omitting kilometres it takes for food to get to grocery stores and then to our fridges. It also uses residual heat from the building it’s sitting on to save on energy in the winter. But perhaps most crucially, Lufa Farms grows its produce hydroponically in coconut fibre, meaning 90 per cent of water gets reused.
Growing on a rooftop does have its drawbacks, though. Among them, Lufa’s produce can’t be listed as organic in Quebec because it doesn’t grow in soil, even though it does everything else required for organic certification (like not using synthetic pesticides). Lufa also can’t plant fruit trees with sprawling roots, so citrus and bananas are out of the question. Still, like the rows of bright green Boston lettuce in its greenhouses, Lufa keeps growing.
What started with one rooftop space in Montreal has expanded to four, including a 164,000 square-foot greenhouse on top of an old Sears warehouse that clocks in as the largest commercial rooftop greenhouse in the world. And ever since the pandemic hit, Lufa has ramped up its customer base (affectionately known as Lufavores), doubling to 25,000 food baskets per week, feeding 2 per cent of Montrealers.
“There was obviously a huge shift towards eating local and supporting local through more difficult times and we definitely saw that growth ourselves,” Bélanger said. “We don’t know for sure yet, but hopefully it stays that way and people really stop and recognize the need to support local businesses and farmers, as well as the benefit of being connected to where your food is really coming from.”
And Lufa Farms is far from finished its growth spurt. Bélanger said the company hopes to expand to more rooftops in Montreal as well as to other cities across the eastern half of Canada and the US.
“We never have enough tomatoes, we never have enough cucumbers, so continuing to grow in Montreal is something that we’re looking to do and our vision is a city of rooftop farms,” she said. “To be able to replicate this model elsewhere is definitely a goal, but when that happens, we’re not entirely sure just yet.”
Photos courtesy of Lufa Farms