Making Cities Self-Sufficient in Food Production
Growing up in Lebanon in a farming family allowed me to witness firsthand the challenges of cultivating and transporting food. When I was really young, I remember a time when my grandmother put nine of her kids through university thanks to her farm. But more recently, I have seen her children and grandchildren struggle with the challenge of making their farms profitable and sustainable while confronting the tradeoffs that come with post-Green Revolution agriculture. My grandmother’s farm was a different kind of farm than the ones that exist today. But to realistically feed exploding urban populations requires something new entirely.
Almost a decade ago, I started investigating what this new kind of farm might look like. Over the years I saw some incredibly exciting things happening. Universities were building prototype rooftop farms; technologists were investing in ways to precisely monitor and optimize growing conditions; hydroponics was becoming cheaper and more widely accepted as a way to reduce runoff and lower water usage; greenhouse manufacturers were experimenting with how to minimize inputs and maximize yields in year-round facilities; and growers were using biological controls such as predatory insects to control pest populations without synthetic pesticides.
I got to work on a business model, and it has not changed much since: grow vegetables in a commercial greenhouse on a large urban rooftop
My best ideas—and also my craziest—usually crop up sometime between midnight and three in the morning. Half asleep one night in 2007, an image appeared in my head of an apartment building in Montreal where residents got their vegetables from the roof. Right there and then I got to work on a business model, and it has not changed much since: grow vegetables in a commercial greenhouse on a large urban rooftop and feed thousands of Montrealers through a basket program.
Three years later, we opened the world’s first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse, a 31,000 square foot polyculture farm. The Lufa Farms founding team consisted of Lauren Rathmell, who worked with me on trials at McGill, Yahya Badran, an engineer who I have known since childhood, and Kurt Lynn, a friend and mentor. We planted the first crops on February 28, 2011 and sent out baskets to our first 400 subscribers in April.
The lynchpin of the model is the fact that our customers are so close by
The idea behind Lufa Farms is to grow food where people live, and grow it more sustainably. In practice, the best way to accomplish this was by bringing all of the technologies that I had seen during my research together in a single greenhouse. We use no new land by growing on rooftops; capture rainwater and recirculate 100% of irrigation water in a hydroponic system; use biological controls instead of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides; and use less energy to heat by carefully controlling climate conditions. The lynchpin of the model is the fact that our customers are so close by. This allows us to harvest to-order, thereby eliminating waste; choose cultivars for their taste and nutritional content instead of durability for transport; minimize gasoline costs; and, best of all, deliver the freshest produce imaginable, all harvested the morning of delivery.
In August 2013, we had our second huge milestone when we planted 22 different varieties of tomatoes at our second greenhouse. This 43,000 square foot farm was built in partnership with the Dutch greenhouse manufacturer KUBO. Their Ultra Clima facility is a true marvel: it is carbon neutral and creates the ideal growing environment for crops. Plus it looks really cool and high-tech, especially on top of a building.
We now feed 4,000 Montreal families each week and are on track to harvest nearly 200 metric tons of produce this year from our greenhouses. We also partner with amazing farmers and food artisans who share our values and provide things that we are unable to grow or fabricate ourselves. This group includes dozens of astounding local organic farms and dairy farmers, pasta makers, bakers, coffee roasters, and juicers—the treasures of Quebec.
From the beginning, this has been about more than just providing Montrealers with locally grown produce. We see our project as a meaningful way for cities to become self-sufficient in food production. Right now, each greenhouse rivals an Apple Store in complexity, except you actually sell apples. But the vision is to reduce costs in engineering and construction process, to automate operations, and to make growing much more data-driven, in such a way that rooftop production greenhouses become a standard for cities who want to pursue food security and healthier populations.