December 5, 2023

Cash Crops Under Glass and Up on the Roof

In all but the short summer season, the availability of fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables has been little more than a pipe dream for Montreal residents.

But Lufa Farms, founded by Mohamed Hage and Kurt Lynn, turned an unassuming office rooftop into a 31,000-square-foot greenhouse that grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce year-round and is a working example of a developing trend known as urban rooftop farming.

It has taken a timely convergence of technologies and consumer attitudes to bring rooftop farming to the fore. The advance of hydroponic growing techniques and innovative, cost-effective greenhouse systems, together with increasing consumer desire for organic produce, has redefined the term locally grown and spurred entrepreneurs to create a variety of greenhouse technologies and business models.

The Lufa Farms model is to sell directly to consumers through a co-op. Other urban farms are forming partnerships with supermarket chains by building large greenhouses on supermarket roofs and selling their produce to the store below.

A third concept, called vertical farming, involves growing food in skyscrapers or even warehouses using artificial light and organic growing materials. In theory, a 30-story, one-square block farm could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, and with less spoilage because it would travel less distance, according to Dickson D. Despommier, a Columbia University emeritus professor of public health and microbiology and a leading proponent of vertical farming.

TerraSphere, a unit of Converted Organics with offices in Surrey, British Columbia, and Boston, designs and builds vertical farm systems and sells its lettuce and spinach through Choices Markets, an organic grocery chain in western Canada.

As the technologies have been conquered and viability studies have evolved into real enterprises, a crucial question remains: Can rooftop farmers make a profit?

After four years of developing the business, building the greenhouse and refining growing techniques, Lufa Farms has started delivering baskets of produce to local subscribers: $22 for a six-pound basket and $30 for a basket weighing about nine pounds.

With more than 400 customers signed up and more joining daily, Mr. Lynn, a 60-year-old technology entrepreneur who founded, ListenUP! Canada, a hearing aid chain, says Lufa Farms can enroll a thousand customers, break even this year and reap a 15 percent profit in the future.

“Unlike a lot of start-ups, we’re not trying to find a market,” Mr. Lynn said. “We know there is a demand for this.”

Montreal, like other cold-climate cities, has its share of small organic farms. But a land-based farmer is restricted to a 24- to 28-week growing season while a rooftop greenhouse can produce year-round.

The capital costs to get started are higher for rooftop farms — from $1.2 million to $2 million to find a building and set up a greenhouse — but the operating costs are much lower. That is because rooftop farms require less labor, land, water, fertilizer and heavy equipment and because they all but eliminate shipping costs by selling to the local market. The result, proponents say, is a fresher, tastier, longer-lasting, more nutritious product.

Most rooftop gardens use hydroponic cultivation, a water-based growing system in which no soil is required, nutrients are carefully controlled and natural pest control using insects is favored over pesticides. These greenhouses extend the already popular green-roof concept, using recycled water and lowering energy consumption in the buildings upon which they sit. Lufa Farms says it has saved its host building 25 percent in heating costs since it completed its greenhouse.

Rooftop farms can command a similar or slightly higher price for their produce, but the biggest advantage for Lufa is that its urban location means it can attract more customers and deliver more than a thousand baskets of produce a week, compared with 200 to 300 for a typical land-based co-op. The company’s business plan calls for rapid expansion to more rooftops in Montreal and other cities with similar climates.

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