THE CITIES OF THE FUTURE WILL BE HUNGRY, no matter what form they take.
Right now, distant industrial farms meet most of our food needs. But the environmental impacts are huge. Large-scale industrial agriculture is responsible for 10 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the overuse of pesticides and herbicides has caused widespread contamination of soil and water sources.
A new breed of agriculturalist wants to change that. Urban farmers are rethinking how we produce our food, moving from rural fields into the center of the city. But in increasingly dense places, where to find the space?
Lufa Farms may have the solution. Based in Montréal, the young company has built greenhouses on top of two large buildings. It’s the largest commercial rooftop farm in the world, taking up about 75,000 square feet.
Lufa has the largest commercial rooftop farm in the world. (Lufa Farms)
They’ve built a hydroponic recirculated water system, which limits water waste. And their decision not to use herbicides or pesticides shrinks the environmental footprint dramatically.
Since its first crop in 2011, Lufa’s customer base has grown from 400 to 4,400 people. Subscribers sign up for weekly baskets of tomatoes, lettuce, bok choy, herbs and other vegetables, distributed to about 100 different pick-up points throughout the city. Because the farms are so close to the clientele, Lufa’s farmers can pick produce in the morning and have it in their customers’ hands the same day.
“We think of them as local food engines,” Mohamed Hage, the company’s founder, says of the greenhouses. Lufa Farms, he says, could offer a sustainable food solution for cities all over the planet, especially cold-weather cities where growing seasons are short.
Hage isn’t a farmer himself. But he grew up around family farmers in Lebanon. When he began thinking about new ways to provide food to people seven years ago, the urban rooftop was an obvious opportunity.
Backyard gardening and small-scale community gardens are important, he says. But growing cities need a much bigger and more consistent food source. “There is a huge need for commercial projects, projects that can feed thousands and potentially turn cities self-sufficient with their food production,” Hage says.
Lufa expects to turn a profit on its rooftop farm model by the end of the year. (Lufa Farms)
Lufa Farms partners with other local producers to augment its offerings. Subscribers can now sign up to receive chocolates, baked goods, artisanal vinegars and hundreds of other items. Right now, many of these offerings are expensive. But Hage says that as the operation grows bigger, prices will fall.
“Local food can truly become a phenomenon. It can’t just be food for the rich, it has to be food that anyone can buy,” Hage says. “We are maniacally focused on turning what we’re doing today into a formula.”
For the past two-and-a-half years, Lufa Farms has been developing its next rooftop farm, in Boston. Hage is hoping to begin operations next year, but it’s been a long process of navigating city regulations and building codes. Still, Hage says, the ball is rolling, and city officials have been supportive.
“We’re always surprised at how open and how willing cities and city officials are to this form of agriculture,” Hage says. “But the reality is the pace at which we’re going is slow and we know how decentralized the process can be.”
Though the farms themselves are profitable, the company is still in start-up mode. Investments are being made in new technologies, such as apps to monitor the concentrations of good and bad insects in the farm. Investments are also coming in new locations. Hage says the company should turn a profit by the end of the year. In the meantime, it’s growing, bringing on a new employee about every two weeks.
This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here.And see Mohamed’s presentation in the video below.