Tomato Plants in the Sky

23 Nov

Montrealers are so lucky: they just got their first rooftop farm. The glass houses of Lufa Farms (les fermes Lufa) gleam in the wintry sunlight, way up high atop a red-brick commercial building in the north-east of the city. For the 800 members who’ve signed up to receive a weekly box of fruit and veg, Lufa Farms represents access to locally grown, fresh produce year-round–think strawberries in winter, minus the guilt. When you’re under snow half the year, that’s huge.

Photo courtesy of les fermes Lufa

This is a farm without tractors. Eggplants, peppers, squash, tomatoes, fresh herbs and other fresh goodies are simply handpicked from their rows, then transported down one floor in an elevator to be cleaned and sorted into mixed produce boxes, ready to be dropped off at 36 points across the city the same day they’re picked.

When you’re moving tomatoes ten miles rather than 10,000, you don’t need to work with genetically modified types, as tough as bouncy balls, to make sure they survive the ride.

And you can pick them at the peak of their freshness, so the nutritional value is higher and the taste, at its best.

I sampled some in the greenhouse, and they were as tangy, firm-fleshed and flavourful as those my dad grew in the garden when I was little–nothing like the bland, watery wannabes shipped up hard and green from Florida.

Lufa Farms’ plants are supported by coconut fibre and peat moss. They’re fed by a mineral-enriched water solution circulated through tiny water tubes. A soil-free system is necessary, so that the supporting building doesn’t strain beneath the weight of the farm and its bounty.

Rainwater is collected in summer through pipes outside, filtered, then used to irrigate the plants. In winter, the heat of the greenhouse melts the snow, and it is used for watering too.

Vegetables grown hydroponically–using mineral nutrient solutions in water–can’t be certified organic in Quebec. But you’ll not find chemical sprays at Lufa Farms, nonetheless.

Here war is waged on little plant-harming bugs, like aphids and whiteflies, with bigger carnivorous bugs, such as beetles, ladybugs and wasps. Four hives worth of non-stinging bumble bees take care of pollination.

There are many heirloom vegetables growing at Lufa farm; they have twelve different kinds of tomatoes, including striped zebra and pale-pink-fleshed brandywine varieties. Genetically modified (GM) varieties? Non, merci!

Since carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables need soil, and your average pumpkin is rather heavy, Lufa has partnered with a few local organic farms from just outside the city to supplement their weekly veggie boxes with the seasonal items they don’t grow up on the roof.

The landlord of the building topped by Lufa Farms is pretty happy with his new tenants. Their plants being up there help to naturally cool the whole building in summer and keep it warm in winter, saving him around 30 percent on air conditioning and heating bills. The other tenants–mainly clothing and accessories companies–were among the first to sign up for fresh veggie boxes.

Founder, thirty-year-old Mohamed Hage, has spent the last five years working with a team of architects, engineers, biochemists, agronomists, builders and even lawyers to make his dream of a year-round farm in the city reality.

“City roofs are currently a wasteland, and we can put them to good use,” says Mohamed.

“I realized that food normally goes through many people before the consumer gets it, and the emissions problem was enormous.”

Courtesy of Lufa Farms

Mohamed is already working on a second farm in Montreal, which should be up and running by the end of 2012, and he takes calls daily from people in other cities interested in setting up their own commercial rooftop growing operations. Before franchising comes into the equation though, he wants to spend time fine-tuning the systems at these first locations: “We need to walk before we run.”

Later on the train back to Toronto, as I snack on tart groundcherries and sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes and start writing this post, I hope very hard that soon every Canadian city will have the chance to feed its own communities, Lufa Farms-style.



3 Responses to “Tomato Plants in the Sky”

  1. Anna Finnigan November 23rd, 2011 at 11:36 AM #

    Love this idea and would hope that we can eventually do that out west! Awesome idea and congratulations on what looks to be a successful venture!

  2. gloria November 25th, 2011 at 9:36 PM #

    I think this is a fantastic idea ! And exactly what we all need, fresh, hand-picked produce…..ALL YEAR ROUND….., perhaps at a little lower costs to the consumer, which encourages them to become loyal shoppers. It is a WIN – WIN situation. Any chance of buying a franchise ? Any thought of taking this west….British Columbia ?? Either way, I wish you the very best….you are an inspiration, thanks miss glo

  3. Emily November 26th, 2011 at 9:30 AM #

    This is wonderful!! Bravo to you Mr Hage. Kudos kudos kudos.

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