Frustrated by the mystery surrounding supermarket produce, Canadian Mohamed Hage and his wife Lauren Rathmell reimagined food production. They realized farmland was disappearing rapidly, at the same time as the population grew exponentially — leaving lots of unanswered questions about the sustainability of the food supply.
“One of our big frustrations was going to the grocery store and having so many questions,” Rathmell says. “We know this tomato is coming from far away, but where’s it coming from? Who grew it? How was it produced? It’s just something on a shelf, so far removed from where it came from and so little we know about it.”
Hage presented a TEDx Talk on the topic, explaining that food travels 1,500 miles on average before landing on a plate — losing flavor and nutrients as it’s repacked, refrigerated and resold. “The process of industrial farming is far from optimal,” Hage says, describing commercial farms as massive consumers of land, energy and water.
He wondered: “What if you could grow food in a more responsible way … and go straight to the consumer?” With that vision to “grow food where people live and grow it more sustainably,” Hage and Rathmell, along with Yahya Badran and Kurt Lynn, founded Lufa Farms in 2009.
To Hage, more sustainable agriculture means:
- Using no new land, instead growing on rooftops
- Using less water, more efficiently
- Not using any synthetic pesticides
- Selling produce the day it’s harvested
Committed to these principles, Lufa Farms built the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse in Montreal in 2011. Since then, the company has built two more in Laval and Anjou, each one larger and more innovative than the last, as they’ve developed growing systems and technologies to make rooftop greenhouse production more sustainable — both ecologically and economically.
No new land. To produce food as close to as many consumers as possible, without using any more land, Lufa Farms looked to unused urban rooftops.
“One of the biggest challenges — starting up, and still now — is finding suitable buildings,” Rathmell says. “We found our first site by doing a Google Maps survey of Montreal, and going quadrant by quadrant to see, from the top down, which buildings looked big enough for a rooftop greenhouse. Out of that needle-in-a-haystack search, we found a couple buildings that had the structure to support a greenhouse, and one owner was willing to take the risk with us.”
After four years of developing growing technologies, it took less than three weeks to erect the first commercial rooftop greenhouse, a 32,000-square-foot steel-and-aluminum structure.
“It’s not built like a farm, so you have to follow building codes, which makes it harder, heavier and more expensive,” says Rathmell, Lufa Farms’ greenhouse director. “It had never been done before, so engineering a greenhouse that’s typically built on the ground in rural areas, for urban rooftop construction, was quite challenging. We’re getting better at it with each greenhouse.”
The second greenhouse opened in 2013 after a developer contacted Lufa Farms with the opportunity to incorporate a rooftop structure as a new building was being constructed. Lufa worked closely with KUBO, a Dutch greenhouse design and construction firm, to engineer the space.
“Building from the ground up was hugely beneficial,” Rathmell says of the 43,000-square-foot greenhouse in Laval, Montreal’s largest suburb. “It’s much more efficiently designed; it’s wall-to-wall.”
Earlier this year, Lufa Farms opened its third rooftop greenhouse, a 63,000-square-foot operation in the Anjou borough of Montreal — the most technologically advanced yet.
Water conservation. Lufa Farms’ founders implemented hydroponic methods to minimize environmental impact. They developed proprietary systems to capture rainwater, snowmelt and condensation, using closed-loop drip irrigation to water plants growing in coconut fiber.
“The main difference with how we had to engineer things for the rooftop was making everything as light as possible,” Rathmell says. “We have no tanks, no heavy equipment up in the greenhouse. At our first site, (the water collection tanks) are in the basement of the two-story building below — which keeps it cooler, but it also means we have to pump it up to the top, which is not always easy.”
Still, Rathmell says she’d rather face the challenge of irrigation circulation than place additional demand on the city water supply. Because irrigation is recirculated, it uses up to 90 percent less water and nutrients than standard hydroponic methods.“We recirculate everything, which is unique in greenhouses because the plants aren’t getting a perfect [nutrient] recipe all the time,” says Rathmell, a self-proclaimed “data science nerd” who uses software to measure and track everything — including water intake and nutrient levels. “It’s important for us to eliminate runoff and recirculate everything so nothing is wasted.”
Biological pest controls. Lufa Farms’ founders are determined to keep their produce free from synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
“We thought being in a city on a roof might help avoid a lot of the pest problems you see in the fields, but that’s not true,” Rathmell says. “We’re kind of an oasis in the city for all the aphids that want to invade. We have every [pest] you can imagine, so we had to learn how to manage those.”
Lufa Farms uses biological pest controls, releasing beneficial predatory insects — like ladybugs and wasps — to combat harmful pests like aphids. For mildew and leaf diseases, they also use biologically derived sprays, such as a beneficial fungus that fights bacteria.
“One of the bigger sustainable growing challenges is pest management,” Rathmell says. “We realized pretty quickly that the best way to control it is to scout and catch problems as early as possible.”
Most growers scout, but most don’t measure to the degree Lufa does. They even developed their own mobile app to track their scouting data. Every week, growers walk each row in the greenhouses and log metrics like pest population density.
“That data populates a hotspot map so we can visualize trends over time,” Rathmell says. “We’ve had two bad whitefly seasons, and it usually gets worse in tomatoes in the winter because the controls are less effective when it’s cooler and darker. We had a good whitefly control season this year, and we wouldn’t be able to do that without seeing the map of what’s going on.”
The biocontrol report is first and foremost on a long list of reports that Rathmell reviews in weekly one-on-one meetings with growers at each location. “I went a little data crazy,” she admits, but says the analytics make the greenhouses more effective.
“We’re unique in how much we measure,” she says. “Most people wouldn’t spend quite as much time as we do, but because of our unique situation — we’re never empty, we grow lots of different varieties, and we don’t use pesticides — that combination forces us to dedicate the time because we save time and costs later.”
Picked-to-order. Lufa Farms’ first greenhouse worked like any community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Subscribers — called “Lufavores” — got whatever produce was available each week from pick-up points around the city.
“It had the novelty aspect, like there’s a cooking challenge every week to use what’s in your basket,” Rathmell says, “but we knew that model was limited. People would say, ‘I love what you’re doing, but I don’t want cabbage every week until the end of time.’”
Based on that feedback, Lufa Farms launched an online marketplace in 2013, allowing Lufavores to customize their baskets (with a minimum order of $15) up until midnight before delivery day. Lufa has since partnered with other local farmers and food artisans that share its commitment to fresh, local, responsible food. Now, in addition to nearly 50 varieties of greens, herbs and vegetables from Lufa’s rooftop greenhouses, customers can also choose from a wide selection of other fruits and vegetables, meat, seafood, dairy, pasta, baked goods and pantry staples like peanut butter and jelly.
“You can get almost everything you need for groceries through the marketplace,” Rathmell says.
Harvesters arrive in the wee hours of the morning to pick veggies for that day’s deliveries. Local bakers and food makers fill orders by mid-morning, so baskets are assembled before noon. Lufa Farms fills 10,000 customized baskets every week, which are delivered by a fleet of five electric cars to 350 pick-up points across Montreal and Quebec City. Home delivery is also available in select cities.
Because food is picked to order and delivered same-day, it eliminates waste and drastically reduces the energy that’s usually spent packaging, shipping and refrigerating produce.
“The food model we’re trying to create is a local food engine, direct-to-consumer, providing access to fresh produce and other goods year-round. This model works in any city, especially where local food is hard to come by in the wintertime, so we’re hoping to expand,” says Rathmell, who’s “actively planning a new location in New England.”
Now with 150 employees, Lufa Farms has maintained more than 50 percent growth year-over-year since 2013. Until last year, that growth was largely word-of-mouth — fueled by greenhouse tours every few months. Then, in 2016, Rathmell developed the company’s marketing and communications department, adding marketing director to her title.
She launched new social media channels to engage with Lufavores by taking them behind the scenes at the farm — for example, posting Instagram stories sharing site tours and new varieties, and blog posts introducing partners.
“It helps people connect and understand what we’re about,” she says. “Yes, you are shopping for groceries online, but every product, every supplier, has a story behind it. We want to make sure all the info is out there and the story is complete.”