Today is Earth Day and in Canada, in 2014, the theme is sustainable cities.
There are several ways that cities can work towards sustainability. These include: investing in adequate green space, responsible community design, “green” buildings and energy efficiency, public transportation, cycling infrastructure, reliable waste and water treatment, effective recycling programs and ensuring access to healthy food.
We’re interested in all of these issues, but right now it’s Spring and access to healthy food is front and centre. Local asparagus will soon be available, followed by strawberries and more, signalling the start of the early harvest. We can, if we wish, become “locavores” for a few precious months in the Northern hemisphere when we can choose to eat locally grown food that’s in season.
Quebec strawberries, source: food and foto
For much of the rest of the year, despite the fact that we have unparalleled access to an abundance of exotic foods, we’re geographically disconnected from our food supply. This means that much of our produce travels hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the farm to our tables.
Montreal’s Lufa Farms is working to reverse this. It’s a farm located on the roof of a building in an industrial park, which provides access to fresh vegetables all year round through innovative agricultural production in the heart of the city.
Aerial view of Lufa Farms, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Started in 2011, Lufa Farms was the first urban rooftop commercial agricultural production in the world. By 2012, it was feeding 2,000 people, using half the energy, water and nutrients of traditional agriculture. And that was just the beginning. We want to share its story to mark Earth Day and celebrate Lufa Farms’ contribution to making Montreal a more sustainable city.
Lufa Farms cherry tomatoes, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Mohammed Hage is the founder and president of Lufa Farms. His family is from a small town in Lebanon that is completely food self-sufficient, begging the question whether local urban food production is a new and innovative phenomenon. Hage acknowledges that modern urban agriculture is a re-creation of something very old, but he explains that the innovation comes from the fact that it is occurring in, around, and above ‘concrete jungles.’
This meeting of the old and the new is reflected in the hydroponic production process employed at Lufa Farms, which relies on a finely tuned balance between ancient techniques and state-of-the-art technology. For example, the greenhouses are pesticide- and fungicide-free relying on a pest management system that utilizes other insects; bees are used to pollinate and ladybugs to control the aphid and white fly populations. And no chemical fertilizers are used; green waste is composted to feed the plants.
Yet, in conjunction with these low-tech approaches high-tech technologies are employed. Lufa Farms relies on solar energy and cutting-edge micro-climate management software, which captures energy efficiencies and carefully controls temperature and humidity levels throughout the greenhouse encouraging maximum yields for each crop. And a sophisticated closed-loop water system harvests rainwater and re-circulates the run-off from the plants.
Bok choy and Lufa’s hydroponic growing system, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Lufa Farms operates on a subscription basis, which is a great way for farmers to reduce crop waste because only the product that has been ordered is harvested. Customers sign up for a weekly box of food that can be customized up until midnight the night before the harvesting, picking and packing. The food is then delivered to one of several pickup points across the city, where it is collected by the customer.
Packing food boxes, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Hydroponic production is not eligible for organic certification in Canada, which is ironic in this case, considering the many economic, environmental and social benefits of this model of urban farming.
Healthy food. The produce is safe, uncontaminated by residues from chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, some local produce (broccoli, green beans, kale, red peppers and tomatoes) may even have a higher nutrient value when it’s given more time to ripen, due to the shorter time between harvest and consumption. The produce is picked at their peak of ripeness and is in the hands of customers within 24 hours. The short turnover means it will tend to taste better, encouraging us all to eat more veggies! In fact, when farming locally, farmers can choose to plant cultivars for taste, rather than for transportability, so that the most flavourful varieties (rather than the hardiest varieties) are grown.
A perfect eggplant, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Environmental benefits. The environmental benefits from a hugely reduced carbon footprint as a result of drastic reductions in transportation, and energy efficiency in the greenhouse, are significant in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the plants themselves remove carbon dioxide from the air, doing their bit in the battle against climate change. Efficiencies in water use and capturing run-off conserve and protect water resources, and promoting the cultivation of non-hybrid heirloom varieties helps protect the planet’s genetic diversity for future generations.
Food security. In a time of urbanization this type of local urban agriculture contributes to feeding increasing numbers of city dwellers and to ensuring a secure and sustainable food supply.
source: Lufa Farms via myhealthywire.com
Strengthening communities. Drop-off points in communities encourage exchanges of ideas, recipes, and even produce. And when the people who produce your food, live and work in your community, you, your children and your neighbours know a lot more about that food.
Supporting the local economy. Money that is spent with local farmers stays close to home and is typically used to provide employment to local people and is reinvested in businesses and services in the community.
All of this helps explain why projects like Lufa Farms are so important in an effort to build sustainable cities.
“Forty years ago, prior to the construction of the industrial building, there used to be a farm and a farmer used to work here, feeding people. For thirty seven years that spot was replaced by an industrial building that contributed to heat islands and displaced the farmer. The good news is that this spot is, once again, a fertile plot of land employing many and feeding many, many, more and helping make our world become a better place. So, imagine cities that feed their own inhabitants. Imagine communities that are connected by farms. Imagine knowing your farmer and knowing your food.” (How rooftop farming will change how we eat, Mohamed Hage TEDxUdeM)
A perfect tomato, source: Lufa Farms flickr
Lufa Farms has formed partnerships with other local food companies with similar values and offers an online marketplace where customers can shop for most of their groceries. This model has been such a big hit with Montrealers that a second greenhouse has been built to keep up with local demand and further expansion is in the pipeline.
Happy Earth Day everyone!