Flooded by a sea of high-powered lights, an expansive new facility on top of an industrial complex in Laval houses a fascinating assortment of tomatoes and other vegetables, each grown using a complex system owned and operated by Montreal-based Lufa Farms.Built and completed in mid-August, the massive 43,000 square-foot greenhouse employs five people full-time to perform harvesting and crop work on a daily basis for their impressive and extremely practical weekly basket subscriptions for Montreal consumers. (More on that later.)
Lufa Farms originally began as a concept to improve agricultural methods in Lebanon. Founder & CEO Mohamed Hage wished for something more local and sustainable for his native environment, and looked toward developing a closed-loop project that would require minimal energy and maximum output. Sometime during the planning stages, Mohamed realized Montreal – with its cheap access to hydroelectricity and environmentally-sensitive consumer base – would be a good place to test his hypothesis. “It has hard initially to convince people of our business model, as we lacked a ‘proof of concept’. However, we’re now on track for profitability by the end of the year, and we’re very happy with the results so far,” explained greenhouse director and founding member Lauren Rathmell, who oversees operations inside the private facility.
The greenhouse is Lauren’s realm. As a graduate of biochemistry at McGill, Lauren joined the Lufa team one year after completing university, and immediately became invested as a full-time believer in the project. Having known Mohamed for a number of years, she accelerated through the learning process quickly as she absorbed more about the scientific and engineering techniques behind the system and applied that to her plant-based knowledge.
The first Lufa Farms greenhouse opened on March 1, 2011, in Ahuntsic, on the northern coast of Montreal. The 31,000 square-foot unit became the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse and was opened to the public. The Ahunstic facility enabled the company to get off its feet and promote its first initiative – basket subscriptions. Registered customers can go online to customize their basket, which is delivered to one of about 200 shops or small grocers in their area. “The idea behind this was to enable people to stop and pick up their baskets somewhere between their home and work, as to not make it inconvenient for them. In fact, we’re trying to do the exact opposite,” said Lauren. Once logged in to the site’s marketplace, customers are able to choose from a wide assortment of fruits, vegetables, and more recently, freshly-baked bread. At midnight, the order gets sent to the bakers and farm managers, and items are harvested at 5 a.m. and delivered same day.
The difference between the old and the new facilities, however, are striking. Lauren notes that they were able to learn valuable lessons from their first space, and were able to incorporate many of their new ideas into the Laval greenhouse. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect is that they were able to work alongside the developer – rather than undergo renovations to install their equipment post-construction – during the building phase. This allowed Netherlands-based greenhouse developer KUBO to design and implement their concepts directly into the plans.
The new facility is over-pressured, with air being circulated through large tubes, hoses and fans. “With higher pressure inside than outside, the number one thing is that bugs don’t get in. The last thing we want is our brand new greenhouse to be infested with bugs,” said Lauren. The truth is that people, equipment, and plants are all carriers of insects, and any one of those elements could spring disaster to their operation. (In fact, all visitors are required to don NASA scientist-like suits and undergo a semi-disinfection process just to enter the greenhouse.) If ever they notice an infestation, ladybugs and wasps are used to eliminate the smaller insects. “We like to say we’re ‘sending in the troops’ whenever that happens,” expressed Lauren, containing a small laugh. “Moreover, keeping a balance between pests and predators was initially our number one focus.” In learning from their mistakes, the Lufa team developed an iPad app to scout and input data for pest control, which allowed them to create a hotspot map and use it as a predictive tool to anticipate problems before they occur.
The Laval greenhouse is also far more technologically advanced. They imagined similar techniques as those used in traditional greenhouses, such as glass panels and ceiling ventilation, but decided to take it a step further in designing their new facility. This time, they’ve installed air vents underneath the plants – rather than from the roof – to pump liquid CO² and adjust pressure to the plant’s specific needs. The use of large air tubes underneath the plants is also more efficient as it allows more natural light to enter into the building, raising production by 10% and reducing overall energy costs. The air vents are controlled by large fans in a separate space at the far end of the greenhouse. An evaporative cooling panel (made of perforated cardboard) lines the walls, mixing air from inside and outside, while large energy curtains along the roof and walls are activated each night to retain the amount of heat absorbed during the day and to create a barrier for heat insulation, ultimately reducing overnight heating costs by 60-70%. The roof itself was built to withstand up to three feet of snow.
Largely due to these techniques, Lufa Farms was able to allocate 90% of its space strictly for plants (and the accompanying equipment), while the rest of the space is simply for logistical purposes. Plants arrive at the farm at about 50 days old, and start producing approximately two months after planted. The plants are fed using recirculated water – even captured rainwater and condensation through a gutter system designed into the roof of the greenhouse. Once they have been exhausted, the plants are composted through a partner company in Lachute, keeping the eco-friendly system alive and in constant circulation.
Lufa Farms’ tomatoes – their signature product – are ripe and ready to eat after about 10 to 12 months of production. The hydroponically-grown, pesticide-free tomatoes are available year-round, which means there’s always something fresh just around the corner. The greenhouse boasts row after row of 22 different varieties of tomatoes, each one juicier than the last. “We went a little crazy in production,” admits Lauren. Their specialty, however, definitely lies in heirlooms. “Most restauranteurs will tell you they can’t afford to use heirloom tomatoes because they’re too fragile to be transported long distances. Because we’re just 20km from the heart of downtown Montreal, this suddenly becomes a very realistic option,” said Lauren proudly.
Selling directly to consumers continues to be the focus of their operation; a whopping 99% of their stock is sold in baskets to weekly subscribers (baskets require a $30 minimum). Their delivery system works on particular routes each day of the week according to neighbourhood. With pick-ups organized through various shops across the city, people are likely to make additional purchases when they pick up their fresh produce. “One of our pick-up locations is a cheese shop, who was happy to partner with us as clientele are more likely to buy cheese when they pick up their fresh bread than if they’re just walking by empty handed,” said Lauren. Staying true to their vision of eco-sustainability, customers can place a hold on their order to donate their basket to a local food bank if they cannot complete their order for the week.
Lufa Farms has no plans to stop growing, either. They are projecting a small profit this year and will use their established network to expand across North America. “We’re interested in opening up another location in Montreal in the next couple of years, but really Boston is the next target city… Chicago is another one that is rolling out the red carpet for projects like this, so we’re keeping our ear to the ground,” said Lauren. She noted that while it was a long road to get the project going, both individual clients and businesses have recently expressed interest in partnering for greenhouse construction. Ultimately, Lufa Farms views the strong interest from both business owners and consumers alike as “pipelines for potential expansion” and are making the most out of the positive buzz being carried through the grapevine.
Stay tuned tomorrow for our delicious recipe post using Lufa Farms tomatoes!!
Love Lufa Farms tomatoes? Head down to their Christmas Market this Saturday, December 14th from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.!!
Free and open to the public, the second-annual Christmas Market will feature more than 25 farmers, bakers, artisanal food producers and craftsmen from throughout Quebec showcasing their sustainable wares. The Christmas Market will be held at the Lufa Farms headquarters at 1400 Antonio-Barbeau St., just north of Crémazie.
Shoppers also can tour the Lufa Farms rooftop greenhouse, purchase Lufa Farms gift certificates & local produce, taste freshly picked vegetables, and take a break at the on-site coffee house. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own drinking mugs and shopping bags. Gift certificate, in denominations of $50, $100, and $200, are available now at the company website: http://montreal.lufa.com/gift.
Photos by Matthew Brooks
Daniel Bromberg is the Food Editor at The Main. Check him on Instagram @mynxbrom