Rooftop farming in Canada – Lufa Farms

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Lufa Farms, or Les Fermes Lufa, build and run rooftop greenhouses in Canada.  Here they grow food hydroponically in great quantities, using bespoke innovative technology.  They aim to make cities self-sufficient in food, removing the need for much of the land use associated with big agriculture whilst improving the efficiency of the urban environment.

Locavore spoke to Laurence Hamelin, Communications Coordinator, about their rooftop farms, biological pest control, and the possibility of Montreal becoming self-sufficient in fresh vegetables and greens.

lufa farms rooftop farming

How did the idea for Lufa Farms first come about?

Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell are the cofounders and the company started in 2009. Their idea was to fix the food system – in terms of sustainability, distance, quality, and food safety – and to reconnect people with where their food comes from.

Mo is from Lebanon. Back in his village, everyone knows who makes their food and how. Lauren is from Vermont and grew up on a farm. Both felt strongly about this vision. Also, it probably didn’t hurt that they both had a technical background to tackle this immense challenge. Lauren studied biochemistry at McGill, and Mo had a background in software engineering. Right off the bat, she was in charge of plant science and farming, and he took on the logistics and engineering side of the business.

You use an array of innovative technology, such as rainwater harvesting, nutrient recycling, and biocontrol of pests. Can you tell us more?

Five principles guide our farming ways:

  • We use no new land. Our rooftop farms repurpose lost spaces for food production, and give urban residents access to local produce that they would otherwise have imported from thousands of miles away (2400 km on average).

  • We recirculate water and nutrients. We recirculate 100% of irrigation water and nutrients in our filtered closed-loop hydroponic growing system, using between 50% and 90% less water than a comparable farm not practising recirculation. We don’t load the municipal drainage system, and our plant nutrients don’t end up in lakes, rivers, and waterways.

  • We save energy. We use about half the energy a comparable greenhouse on the ground would use. Our rooftop greenhouses also act as a protective buffer from the elements to reduce the building’s heating needs too (building below saves 30% energy costs), and help reduce urban heat islands.

  • We control pests biologically. We use biological controls to create ecosystems in our plants and to take care of harmful pests. We introduce non-invasive ladybugs and a wide range of insects like parasitic wasps. We’ve also developed biocontrol software to monitor hot zones (areas of high pest concentration) in order to better manage outbreaks and ensure our plants are healthy.

  • We reduce waste. We pick our veggies to order and we compost all of our green waste.

Was much of this technology pre-existing, or did you have to come up with new ways of doing things?

We developed a lot of this technology internally, since much wasn’t (and still isn’t) standard to the greenhouse industry. Not many people grow so many varieties in a shared climate, using continuous recirculation of irrigation water and no synthetic pesticides. The key approach we take is using data science to understand and solve problems.

For example, we realized early on that, to be successful with biological controls, we needed to detect and prevent pest infestations as early as possible. This involved good scouting techniques to check and log what and where the pests are. This data can then be tabulated in hot spot maps to show us exactly what’s going on week-by-week and how the good bug/bad bug ecosystems are balancing out. We eventually developed an iPad app for this, so everything can be easily logged as the team walks through the plant rows and quickly visualized to assess the current pest situation!

tomatoes, hydroponics

You harvested your first rooftop crops in 2011. Was this harvest as you’d hoped, or were there lessons to be learned and improvements to be made?

Our first harvest was the result of two years of research, planning, and so much work. At first, our baskets were not customizable. So we were first able to feed 300 families according to what we grew in our first greenhouse, and took it from there.

To this day, we’re still very much trying to find more efficient ways to grow food on rooftops – it’s a process in constant evolution.

What are the advantages of your rooftop growing system over more traditional large-scale agriculture?

In short, the three main advantages of rooftop urban agriculture are to be able to grow food where people live (local), to grow it more sustainably (responsible), and to deliver it to people on the same day it’s harvested (fresh).

You’re not certified as organic, as hydroponics do not currently qualify. Why is this?

Hydroponics can’t be certified organic, as one of the criteria to get certified is growing in soil – with hydroponics, we essentially grow plants in water (in a coconut fibre substrate). But we follow the same practices as organic farms for pest and disease control. We do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides.

We do have to use some synthetic fertilizers because we grow with standard hydroponics. The nutrients the plants are getting are the same as soil, but more efficiently delivered by dissolving salts in water.

This growing system allows us to:

  • Grow food where people live, thus choosing cultivars for their taste and nutritional value.

  • Deliver our produce on the same day it was harvested, thus minimizing waste.

  • Reuse 100% of our water and nutrients, without creating any polluting runoff.

Do you have more plans to innovate and to improve the sustainability of your systems?

Every new greenhouse we build gets bigger, better, lighter, and cheaper. We want urban rooftop farms to become a must when building new structures!

Our latest one built in 2017 in Anjou, Montreal, is 63,000 square feet and maximizes production with partially automated hydroponic growing channels. They move gradually, every day, from the planting end of the greenhouse to the harvesting end of the greenhouse. This allows us to produce a lot more per square foot of greenhouse, making every inch count in terms of energy and resources.

sustainable food, hydroponics

How do you choose which plants to grow? Do you have a favourite crop?

We choose our crops based on taste and nutritional value, and on their potential to grow well using hydroponics (crops that grow up, like greens, rather than down, like root veggies). We don’t have a favourite crop, but we have a hard time meeting demand for our tomatoes!

Who are your customers?

Our tens of thousands of Luvafores are urban dwellers who share our vision to change the way we feed cities. They are people who want to know where their food comes from, and how it’s grown. They get why we do what we do, and help us figure out how to do it even better on a daily basis.

What has been the reaction to your produce and ideas, both from your customers and the wider food industry?

We’re lucky to count on a very supportive community of Lufavores. We’re always asking them for honest feedback and we communicate with them daily to ensure we keep doing things right. They completely get it, and we keep this whole process a conversation, so we can get better and better. The main feedback we get from them is how quickly they get used to the quality and freshness of the food we provide them, and how hard it is to step away from this once you tasted the difference.

In 2013, we launched our online farmer’s market to provide Lufavores with a full selection of products. From that point on, we partnered up with local farmers and food makers (we’re up to 230 partners now). It’s a win-win situation: our customers can get more through the Marketplace and get to know the stories behind the products, and the farmers have a market for their products that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

tomatoes, hydroponics

Do you hope your systems will be replicated elsewhere?

We hope to keep doing what we’re doing to change the way we feed cities around the world.

Do you think urban farming can help to mitigate the damage that is being done to soil, water, and air, worldwide? And can it provide enough nutritious, tasty food to feed a growing population?

Absolutely. This is why we follow the five principles for sustainable agriculture mentioned earlier.

Also, we did the math: we’d only need 19 malls in or near Montreal with rooftop greenhouses for the area to be self-sufficient in fresh veggies and greens. It’s not an unrealistic vision at all.

What are your plans for 2018 and beyond?

We want to get really, really good at what we do, here in Montreal, and then start feeding other cities. But fixing a broken food system is not easy. Growing food on rooftops, harvesting to order, and delivering to customers on the same day is a real logistical puzzle, and we’re still figuring out how to be better.

We want to keep growing our cohort of Lufavores.

We want people to reconnect with [food], and know how their food is grown.

We want to build a community outreach program. Right now, we’re looking for schools and summer camps who’d like to pay us a visit this summer, and take it from there.

We want to see a world of cities of rooftop farms.

Lufa’s founding team (l-r) Yahya Badran, Kurt Lynn, Lauren Rathmell, Mohamed Hage

What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for Lufa Farms and for the wider food world?

On a practical level, scaling our vision. We have an incredible team but growing pains are inevitable – each year, we’ve grown a ton and worked out more kinks, but it’s tough work that will continue.

We hope the world keeps waking up – to the state of the environment and the urgency for change, down to the individual level. For us, this means more awareness of how broken and unsustainable our food systems are, so our model and others like it, that are trying to solve these issues, can continue to gain supporters, grow, and help ensure a sustainable future.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

We do what we do to change the way we feed cities.

We want to create a better food system, encompassing our rooftop farms and local agriculture in all shapes and sizes.

We want to reconnect people with where their food comes from by providing a direct and transparent connection from our farms to their tables.

On a personal note, I work at Lufa Farms to play an active role in making cities more sustainable, and a better place to live. My mission is to use my voice (and my words) to help people reconnect to nature, especially right here in the city. Reconnecting urban dwellers to the source of their food – whether it’s grown on rooftops or by local farmers – is a very powerful way to do so.

For more on Lufa Farms, visit their website here.

Find them on Facebook here.

All photography © Lufa Farms / Les Fermes Lufa