A rooftop-farming venture in Montreal has found success with a model that’s part CSA, part Amazon Prime.
Canadians have grown accustomed to seeing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pop up in unlikely photos, sometimes shirtless or in athletic gear. But Trudeau was wearing a suit for a planned photo op when he toured Lufa Farms, a 63,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Montreal, last March. During his visit, Trudeau took a moment to harvest a bag of greens for his family.
One of Canada’s largest urban farming projects, Lufa Farms is the brainchild of Mohamed Hage and Lauren Rathmell. Back in 2011, Hage and Rathmell—partners in business and life—opened the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse, a 31,000-square-foot space atop an old Montreal warehouse. They now oversee three hydroponic greenhouses, each placed on a sturdy, low-rise building, with a combined 138,000 square feet.
The enterprise is part of a wider movement to bring rooftop gardens and greenhouses to North American cities. Gotham Greens operates a 75,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Chicago, said to be the world’s biggest. In Brooklyn, a 65,000-square-foot greenhouse opened in 2012 on top of a building in the Navy Yard.* The concept is suited to a range of environments. Cold-weather cities like Montreal and Chicago have limited growing seasons, which a greenhouse can extend. A rooftop garden maximizes space in a dense urban area and uses less water than traditional agriculture, an advantage in a city or region with a limited water supply.
Whereas many urban farms sell to restaurants or grocery stores, or via farmer’s markets, Lufa has a key point of differentiation: its direct-to-consumer business model. On its website, shoppers can customize baskets of fresh food, which are then delivered to more than 300 pick-up points across the city, or to their homes for an added fee. It’s like community-supported agriculture (CSA) or a farm share merged with the personalization and convenience of Uber Eats or Amazon Prime. “We decided that we needed to give people the option to order what they wanted, and that we would figure out how to get those items to them,” Rathmell said.
In order to serve customers year-round, Lufa Farms pulls in other partners, including more conventional farmers. This helps it prevent seasonal defection (as can happen with some CSAs, once winter arrives and turnips become dispiritingly abundant). Shoppers start with a base basket—suggestions that are automatically included but can be removed. The website offers everything from locally baked bread and Florida citrus to blood sausage and pork pies, quinoa tabbouleh, and organic face wash.
Customers receive an email on Friday to notify them that the marketplace is open, and they have until Sunday night at midnight to lock in their order for a basket to be delivered the next day. From there, the Lufa Farms team gets to work—notifying suppliers, picking the appropriate produce, and channeling it all through a central distribution team that sends the baskets out late Monday morning to pickup points (such as cafes and yoga studios) via electric vehicles.
Lufa has a checklist of criteria that partner farms and suppliers—numbering in the hundreds—must meet, including no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. An organic certification is common, but not required; Lufa Farms’ own produce is not organic, since hydroponic growing methods are not eligible for the certification in Canada.
Currently, Lufa supplies about 25 percent of the food it sells, although that proportion goes up in the middle of winter, when more conventional growers have to contend with Quebec’s frozen ground. Rathmell and Hage anticipate the share will increase with their newly opened third greenhouse. “We’re continuing to scale up, and we want to grow as much as we can ourselves,” said Rathmell. The company grows lettuce, bok choy, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, and many kinds of greens. Lufa also offers foods from other growers that consumers are surprised to see in the middle of a Montreal winter, like locally-grown strawberries.
The idea of growing strawberries in Montreal in January may seem, to put it in produce terms, bananas. But Aaron Fox, an assistant professor of urban and community agriculture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in California, said it makes good business sense to focus on these kinds of coveted items: “If you can grow a strawberry in January, you can charge whatever you want.” Urban farmers, he noted, often end up growing boutique crops because they offer a better financial return than cheaper staples like corn and potatoes, which are not cost-effective with a small yield.
While many urban farmers struggle to make a living, Lufa Farms is shaping up to be a success. It now delivers more than 10,000 baskets of food every week in the Greater Montreal, Trois-Rivieres, and Quebec City corridor, feeding about 2 percent of the population in that area. Launched with some $1.6 million from the founders, it has since received $2.8 million in venture capital, and broke even in 2016. Districts in Montreal are competing to host the next greenhouse, and loyal customers have dubbed themselves “Lufavores.”
Rathmell described Lufa as a “local food engine,” and said the plan is eventually to replicate it in other seasonal food deserts. (The company was recently in discussions to expand into New England, but it is focusing on Quebec for now.) “We’ve created a scalable model for urban agriculture that can theoretically make cities self-sufficient in their food production by growing year-round in greenhouses,” Rathmell said.
For now, though, what makes Lufa work is not strict self-sufficiency, but partnering with suppliers far and wide, and giving the customer exactly what she wants—not a box full of rutabagas.
*CORRECTION: The original version of this post stated the Brooklyn rooftop greenhouse would open later this year. It opened in 2012.